By Girls for Girls: My guest post at A View from the Cave

By Girls for Girls: My guest post at A View from the Cave

Check out my latest post for the International Day of the Girl!


Who are the experts?

Zehra has invited me some weeks ago to write a post for the blog series from the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC): “Gender based-violence & livelihoods: how do we do better?”

WRC has presented really interesting research results and tools to support program implementers working around women empowerment issues, particularly focusing on discussing the intersection of Gender-based violence & livelihoods. I’ve taken an hour to listen to the recordings of their webinar, worth each minute!

My predecessors in the series have done a great job at discussing the issues around protection & unintended consequences of programming, the resources that WRC have developed and the importance of integrating men and boys.

I’m keen to discuss through my experience about three key recommendations from the WRC publications that, in my view, are interconnected:

  • The need for a practice-based learning agenda on what works for enhancing protection & women empowerment through monitoring & evaluation,
  • monitor for unintended consequences in programs, and
  • modify program design in consultation with participants.

We need to get past our assumptions. Mendy Marsh from UNICEF has said it crystal clear in the webinar: “We assume that when women and older adolescent girls have income, they are safer. We assume that when households have income, children are more likely to be in school, that they are accessing healthcare, and that they are better fed.” We often assume things, based on the theories of change that our organisations or our donors develop. “But do we know whether that is true or not? What does the evidence say?” Linda asks in her post.

Well, I’m a firm believer that those who better understand the problems they face and are knowledgeable to develop solutions to those problems are the main actors of development: the people that we are trying to support. Women and adolescent girls in this case, can advise on the risks they face, suggest ways to manage them and judge whether to take certain risks. The WRC publication Preventing GBV, building livelihoods highlights: “programs need to involve women throughout the project lifecycle – assessment and design; implementation; and monitoring and evaluation.”

I was engaged in the last year in an initiative that supported adolescent girls that are part of empowerment projects to take a leading role in evaluating girl programming. The Initiative run in parallel in two countries, Guatemala & Uganda, working with two different program implementers and in different type of programming. During 7 months, 12 adolescent girl trainees in each country learnt how to use participatory video combined with most significant change to support 450 other girls to share their stories of change. At the end of the process, the trainees -who became strong video girl leaders– analysed the 64 collected video stories of change (32 per country) & scribe notes from the process, and presented the results & recommendations to the program implementers & donor in video reports.

On the one hand, the Most Significant Change technique is a form of participatory monitoring and evaluation that directly involves the voices and perspectives of beneficiaries. Essentially the process involves the collection of stories of significant change, followed by the systematic selection of the most significant of these stories by panels of designated community members and other stakeholders.

While on the other hand, Participatory video is an accessible, flexible medium for recording community stories of change. With InsightShare’s games and exercises and experiential learning approach participants can rapidly learn video skills, allowing people to tell their Most Significant Change stories in a familiar context and to someone they trust. The process itself is fun, direct and the results can be played and reviewed immediately. It also helps to avoid situations where project staff or external evaluators speak on behalf of communities, allowing people to speak for themselves.

When participatory video and the Most Significant Change technique are skilfully brought together, the human stories behind development projects can be captured in an accessible form, even for those with low levels of literacy. These combined methodologies promote peer-to-peer learning, collective reflection, triangulation and wide distribution of these important stories. Participatory video allows for everyone to get involved, contribute, feel, and respond to, other people’s stories and can strengthen community ties and identification with developmental objectives.

This initiative allowed adolescent girls to analyse how and why change happens in their lives and the lives of their peers; understand some negative and unintended consequences of programming; and propose recommendations to improve those programs they are part of. It also helped them discover what about girl programming was contributing towards positive change in their lives, as well as who were enablers & blockers of that change. They did it in their terms, using a method they became comfortable with, by which they could express themselves independently of staff or researchers. The video girl leaders had also the chance to talk directly to the donor and present some of the results and recommendations at the AWID 12th Forum last April in Turkey.

Both program implementers have taken into account the learning & recommendations, and are integrating the girls’ suggestions into the next year life cycle of their programs. The donor is also sharing the learning internally and with other grantees working with adolescent girls.

I hope this example can contribute to highlight the crucial points that the WRC research and publications are calling us to reflect about: a practice-based learning agenda is essential to understand what works for women and adolescent girls, what makes them safer and how programs can contribute to safety and empowerment.


On listening to learn (or unlearn)

J., in Tales From The Hood, had come up with a great idea: the Aid Blog Forum. The second forum that was opened last week is focused on Admitting Aid Failure. I’ve written this post after being tempted to participate.

As you might have read here, I’ve just come out from a reflection process on the work I’ve been doing the last months. The project I’m working on is helping build capacity in Participatory Video & Most Significant Change for M&E, training girl leaders to become facilitators and supporting the partner to learn from those who really know what works and what doesn’t in girl programming: the girls and those around them.

One of the questions that J. posed for the forum was “Once failure has been admitted, then what?” Well, I think once admitting failure happened, we’ve already passed the most difficult part. The “then what?” has the nice part of the process: learning! My organisation has a motto: Mistakes are great! Making mistakes during the trainings is “compulsory” for participants, so we have more chances to learn as a group. We make sure that everyone celebrates every time we acknowledge a mistake and learn from it. The more mistakes you make, the better for the group!

But, why is sometimes so difficult for us to learn? And when I say “us”, I mean people as well as organisations. As the Barefoot Guide to learning practices in organisations and social change reminds us, learning sometimes it’s about unlearning.

“The problem is what you already know or what you are used to doing that you may need to unlearn.” (p.14)

Once we are aware of the fact that we many times make mistakes based on our pre-existent knowledge, and take a conscious decision to do something about it, then it’s pretty important to open our eyes and ears to those who know better than us: the beneficiaries. (Note: I hate this word, but unfortunately there is not a good one to use. I mainly mean those who are the protagonist in the story, those who live in whatever difficult condition we are trying to intervene in).

We have many tools to listen. Particularly, letting people participate and commit to “substantial participation”, as the Barefoot Guide says. Substantial participation includes deciding together, acting together and supporting beneficiaries decision-making. Participatory Communication can help us create those channels to listen to those who know better.

Barefoot Guide to learning practices in organisations and social change, p. 94

But once we’ve listened, we have a duty to respond. That’s where I guess lies “downward accountability”. And of course we are part of an aid system that doesn’t make our life as aid & development workers easy, but that shouldn’t be an excuse not to respond. I had the pleasure to meet a fantastic group of people in a reflection process called “How wide are the ripples“, part of a research project from IKM Emergent. We dedicated two full days in march 2010 to explore how wide were the ripples of participatory-generated information from the local level into organisational learning of INGOs. We then had the chance to meet again in October to write together about our common reflections. This ended up in the PLA 63  (available free to download), that includes participatory communication practices; making sense, the dynamics of interpretation & use of outputs; learning in organisations; and structures, mechanisms and spaces, looking at types of organisational systems and structures which can support bottom-up learning. I hope you can take some time to read it, it’s worth every page!

Once failure has been admitted, then what? Then listen, learn (or unlearn) and respond.