Monday, June 29, 2009

sheep in wolf's clothing

brief intro
So, I feel that many of my blogs have not centered much on this abstract and complex little monster called "international development", but have instead drifted to thoughts on the JF experience outside of the office, and for the most part segregated from field work. So rather than another diatribe on bus rides or mental states I'm writing something else today. I hope this post will elucidate some of the work I've been doing and then throw out a few ideas I've been toying with alongside a friend or two from my partner org.

Writing about the actual 'work' part of this placement is tricky for me; among other reasons I never quite feel the calling to write about it! So I really had to force myself to write this post, apologies in advance if it feels laboured.

woes of the "field worker"
I genuinely enjoy field work - I find it to be much more fulfilling than a day in the office. It gives me a chance to genuinely connect the projects my partner runs to real people - faces of determination or faces of sorrow, any emotional state rather - and with these connections it makes connecting the dots in the office that much easier. My partner's work covers three different intervention areas : training, water points, and household water treatment. The field work I have been doing thus far is based around "semi-structured" interviews with household members; topics range from biosand filters, 'what is good water?' and other practices, aspirations, and ideas about hygiene.

Interview "structure" varies depending on who it is I'm conversing with (because the idea is not so much to interview, but to speak and converse. Share and learn); if the household speaks English it is much easier to have a conversation. Depending on who my translator is, regretfully so, the conversation can become more and more of a stream of questions. (Some translators simply will not translate the side remarks or even add extra words to my questions ie: "to you what is good water?" ---->"a bunch of bemba with the words "name of my partner" "BSF" ect...") Sometimes it is very hard to make it clear to the translator what the intents of going to the field are. So what are the intents? To figure out what exactly is going on in households. Finding out common and deviant mind skill sets, perceptions, and habits that if my partner takes into account will help them.

My original goal was to have an partner in this work so that we'd build the study questions together in a way that makes sense in Bemba. Unfortunately this has yet to come to pass. So the communication issue becomes even more difficult, especially when your translator selectively listens to both parties and adds her/his own thoughts into the translation. It really muddles who said what!

systematic seeds for systematic needs?

Upon returning from the JF retreat I was not confident the work I was doing was going to positively benefit my partner - any field data I process still will contain the mental biases I have and be presented in a 'report' form. Since it is difficult to get a partner in crime for this study the values within are highly personal to me and may not be as grounded in the realities of my partner - so the recommendations I can make will not be optimized for the environment, and could likely be dropped. Regardless of this line of thought, my coworkers want me to continue this line of action and give them a report and recommendations. So that's what I will do, but it's going to be in a smaller scope due to the difficulties of doing this work. (that and the fact that it is a large time investment with no guarantee it will build any capacity or even be useful)

So I met with the team and shared with them what my field observations were pointing too: filter distribution wasn't always targeting the right people, there exists gaps in understanding of training and there is also an absence of monitoring and evaluation. (I wont go into the details here)

On the bus from Chipata to Lusaka I began to wonder why the same indicators used as a justification for intervention were not being used as the indicators to measure success? To me this seems like something that makes sense. I've never read anything about this in a book or paper - it's just a thought I had. And for my limited experience with my partner it seemed to be true. So I put some thinking into the matter and thought it all boils back to no m and e and no funding for anything like that.

On my first day back I asked for a meeting with the team. At the meeting we hashed out a plan based on some of these thoughts; the ideas are nothing ground breaking or innovative, but we feel they'll be a seed that can grow into something functional. So taking what I've learned so far and proactively acting on one of my recommendations we are now in the process of laying the ground work for a distributed system for collecting meaningful info. It's a chain or a pyramid where each stakeholder has some level of responsibility in tracking progress towards impact and ensuring functionality.

The major mistake I made in my last line of work - not actively involving my coworkers as much as possible - was one I tried to rectify on day one. I made it clear that I did not have the skills or knowledge to work on anything like this on my own. So now it's a team effort - but not so much a team effort within the organization. The key here is that the community will be involved every step of the way. We'll see how it goes. I'm feeling a lot more positive about this project - sure it wont have a finished product when I leave, nor will it solve any problems overnight (which in my opinion NEVER HAPPENS) but it leaves something to grow with. Also - the way we're structuring it leaves room to include the other major field level problems: "who gets filters and how are they trained?" as part of the system. Ambitious? yes. But not according to my coworkers.

"We're working you hard now, we want all the work you can do before you go. No time to rest".
I wish they brought that attitude on day one of my placement! But living too much in the past leaves little of the soul left to explore the future and act in the present. So... full speed ahead! I don't know what I can add to this but I'm trying and checking my assumptions every step along the way.

My overarching goal for the time being is to develop a household assessment tool based on the ground work I have done (... and will continue one or two days a week) as well as help facilitate meetings with community leaders, design forms, plan and so on and so on. Lots of flip chart paper and lots of meetings. Baby steps, baby steps. But I think that in a year or so, that if my coworkers continue to think along the lines they are going down that perhaps something stellar will begin to grow! Right now it's all on the drawing board - I feel a sort of uneasiness about the whole thing. So ambitious in scope and there is such a firm ambiguity in the details. Way outside of the scope of my skills and knowledge, but it's a learning process for both myself and my coworkers so I know we'll stumble a lot, but if it's an earnest endeavor I can hope that in time something genuine and positive will come out of it...!

1 comment:

  1. Hey Patrick,

    I really liked this one because it was a little different from the others. It is good to hear about the nitty gritty of what you are doing. Also, in a strange way, it is interesting to note the struggles of pinpointing the outcomes that you want to achieve. One, because it is very difficult and important. Two, It has been something I've been thinking about a lot about this past weekend.