by Bonnie Benham, with Andrea Olsen and Sarah Springer
We discussed the benefits to an organization when power might be seen Continue reading
by Bonnie Benham, with Andrea Olsen and Sarah Springer
We discussed the benefits to an organization when power might be seen Continue reading
practivist [prak-ti-vist] :a person who works in a professional manner, or regularly does an skill or activity that requires practice, to support causes they care about
An Ideal Professional
During a recent event (called “Deans’ seminar”) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS), we (current and former masters degree students and a few professors) did a collaging activity in which we went through magazines and cut out images that resonated with our image of the ideal professional that we think we were trying to become. After we made personal collages, highlighting our own personal identities and aspirations, we put them all up on a white board, with each person drawing one connection between his or her college and an image on someone else’s collage. We then went around the room and explained what the images in our colleges represented and why we connected the arrows where we did. Here are some of the collage images:
The purpose of this exercise was to use collaging as a process of thinking and creating dialogue, not necessarily with the goal of having a finalized “artistic” product. One participant in the Dean’s Seminar reflected on the experience of having used art to initiate conversations in our session:
“These conversations haven’t necessarily changed my understanding in a fundamental way, but have perhaps brought them back up to the front of my mind and added nuance.”
I found my own experience resonated with the the idea that the activity did not necessarily create entirely new information; I found myself saying things that of course, I already knew, but otherwise might not have not shared or had at the front of my mind.
My Ideal Professional
My own collage ended up looking like:
I now briefly explain the image:
Making this collage framed my perspective for the rest of the evening’s event, and while I did not create any new ideas about myself or my ideal professional than I had already known, participating in the activity helped me to pull together these elements in a cohesive way, while still maintaining the richness of my ideas and interpretations of what I had made.
I realized while explaining my collage that my ideal professional is essentially a practitioner that is capable of speaking two languages, of constantly moving between two worlds: that of academic and that of practitioner; that of activist and that of professional; that of abstract and that of concrete; that of the inherent value of nature and that of its value in economic terms; that of individual and that of community, etc. What emerged for me after completing this activity was the word practivist. A practivist is a practitioner, a professional, who is not afraid to also be an activist. A practivist is also an activist, who is not afraid to “lose” or “compromise” their values by acting as a professional, or practitioner.
Dear Kent and Alfredo,
In response to your provocative question here are some equally provocative answers. The short answer is that there is a big problem, at least in my field of agriculture.
The ability to ask questions and LEARN from the answers. Too many development specialists have a fixed agenda, fixed ideas about what works and an inability to adapt to the real situation. It often seems that for many, implementing their preconceived ideas is more important than actually doing what is needed. As a result, they go through the motions of consultation but are unwilling or unable to take on board the information they get from those they are “consulting”. Two decades ago I defined the way the term “consultation” was applied by many development specialists as “getting people to agree to do what you have already decided they should do” and I see no reason to change my mind.
One who has a degree of cynicism or, at least, a lack of naivety. The motives of people in the countries where we work are often far from pure. Corruption is widespread. While corruption cannot be entirely avoided, the proposals put forward by development specialists often make it easier, not more difficult. In my field of agricultural marketing, well-meaning recommendations to introduce new rules and regulations often just increase the potential for bribes to be solicited. For example, I recall one writer noting that the only beneficiaries of regulations on street food safety in Calcutta were the police.
Someone who recognises the limitations of what can be achieved. Development practitioners have been working in developing countries for several generations, often without conspicuous success. So a reasonable assumption is that they are not going to change the world overnight. A contributory factor to failure is that they often want to do too much. They see much that needs to be done and then try to address all of it. As a result, what they propose becomes impractical and unworkable as the implementation capacity of the government and potential for sustainability is just not there.
Donors have to stop implementing projects for a fixed term with all activities clearly specified from the outset. In part, that encourages the problems I identify above. Developments have to be on a trial and error basis, which is more how the private sector works. If an approach fails, throw it away and start again. Don’t throw more money at it to try to make it work because that is what it says in the project document. If something works on a small scale then expand it as required. Don’t try to do something on a large scale from Day 1.
Thank you so much for your insights. I share many of your concerns and feel that an even bigger problem is that many practitioners don’t figure these things out until after many years in the field. While I believe that some things can’t really be taught in advance of experience, I also think there are processes that can be used to be more reflective, more adaptive and generally spend more time talking about how real life is reacting to the things we do. Yet I think that many of us are too busy trying to change things (with mostly good intentions), and lacking “slow down” reflective tools—I think we learn too slowly and even do harm in the process.
A few years ago I was heading a regional field office for a US NGO in Ecuador and we were approached by a local-ish NGO (“ish” because they were a favorite son/daughter of the Inter American Foundation and a main trainer of Peace Corps volunteers) to help “strengthen their capacities”. This NGO had lost programs recently and was trying to regenerate itself in a real moment of existential questioning and change. We wrote a grant with them to fund our “capacity building” process, which included a highly formative (intentional training to go along with “process” oriented work) and received the grant. The process had bi-weekly sessions covering different areas of need, brought the group’s experience into it, and helped frame the issues better and make the group more knowledgeable and aware of what needed to be done. But at a certain point the director expressed frustration that, while this was all well and good (and indeed what had been designed, with them), she didn’t see how the process was helping them actually do anything to improve their somewhat desperate immediate situation. But we felt somewhat locked into our design because:
In retrospect there are many remarkable elements to that experience. I’ll share one, which is that we were able, in collaboration with the organizational (client) representatives, to fundamentally misread the nature of the client’s challenging reality at the design phase. I think this is because we were steeped in a (particular—I don’t mean to generalize) culture of capacity building, which generally followed a process of:
We reproduced a dominant way of acting, when these resources might have been used for a more emergent, action oriented process that didn’t get stuck in diagnostic phase, and actually helped them with the heavy lifting they needed.
This reminds me of a poster my brother and I gave our dad for his birthday one year (we were like 12 and 13): “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remind yourself that your original objective was to drain the swamp!” This organization was clearly up to their asses in alligators, and we helped them describe how many, how sharp their teeth were, why they didn’t drain the swamp, what actions should be taken to make sure this does not happen again, etc. Where was my 12 year old self when I needed him! 🙂
By Diederik Prakke
We will meet the impatience of ourselves and others, if we refuse to ignore inconvenient truth and refuse to over-promise.
I write quite some tenders and I often struggle: How bluntly shall I say that (as usual) the project seems to make some (d)illusory assumptions as to how lasting change works? If I win by sweet talking, clients who don’t believe what I believe will select my proposal, and we are in for a rough ride, full of predictable “surprises”. On the other hand: Tenders exist for the very reason that clients miss-assess what it takes to achieve change – else they would have done it already! From that point of view, tendering is merely about getting in. The actual assignment will be about finding a path and step by step checking whether the client is willing to pay the price.
Very often the answer will be:
“Well if it takes that much effort, let’s not climb Mount Everest but just roam around a little and then pretend that we went up, or make up a dramatic story that we were completely unexpectedly attacked by yeti’s”.
When the first hurdles come, many clients are happy to settle for less than what I go for, and less than the objective statement in the ToR. “OK, forget about a real culture change, just draft a code of conduct” (which everybody knows to have no impact and may be used as a stick to beat). Or: “I don’t care about real performance – I just want to show the donor that we do annual staff assessments” (even though they were already called “the bloodletting practice of today” by Stephen Covey).
“Impact is too hard, just give me some meaningless indicators we can use to make graphs”.
I so recognize what you write about clients who show less actual commitment than we agreed and hoped for. This is how we are co-responsible or co-dependent:
And last but not least: Rather than playing victim and gossiping with our colleagues about this cunning client, do we confront this client that he breaks his commitment to his staff and to you? Often an honest talk can repair what we tell ourselves is the final sign of deception by the client. Here the issue of daring comes back: Yes, it pisses us off that the client isn’t on the same page – but do we dare to discuss it openly?
Needless to say: I know all these pitfalls from practicing them.
The initial part of your reflection brings up another dilemma. If we as practitioners believe in Theory Y—that people do know, are motivated and can solve complex issues (and other Theory Y principles)—then that might lead to a highly constructivist approach to change (actually spending time to work with people), that is willing to go slowly and adaptively so that participants can contribute according to their distinct talents and knowledges. That might challenge a lot of pre-packaged process that doesn’t have time to wait for Theory Y to be proven true!
The second part of your reflection (interaction and negotiation with leadership) reminded me of a time many years ago in which a colleague and I were facilitating a capacity building process in Nicaragua over a 3 week period (off and on). We knew there were problems with organizational leadership (including tyrant behaviors) but the leader had been very agreeable with us throughout the design phase—particularly when his supervisors from the US office were in the room negotiating the process.
3/4 of the way through the actual process and the leader gets up in front of the whole organization in a workshop and chastises the entire group for a (apparently inappropriate) note that one person had passed to another. He made clear that this sort of behavior was not to be permitted, but his histrionics delivered a very clear unspoken message:
“No change on my watch cabrones!”
Your words “to endure and embrace the tension between what I long for and what really is” resonate with me because at the time we had no process in place to be more aware of “what really is”, but were simply carrying out what we though everyone wanted and needed. I think the ability “to be daring and patient” is an important high level practitioner ideal and that to be patient implies reflectively studying the situation (what really is) and the possibilities for change as they emerge. The way you framed this is very helpful!
By Diederik Prakke
While “we OD practitioners” do lots of good, I agree that there are huge and fundamental flaws in most of our work. Symptoms like “checklist ticking” and “buzz killing” indeed express the problematic assumption that we are neutral observers and objective advisors. In reality our beliefs and attitudes not only influence what information we pay attention to, but also what is shared with us. The combined level of safety and challenge we create, determines the extent to which people open up. People will sense whether we adhere to Theory X or to Theory Y (the view that people are basically lazy and need to be lured into peak performance, or the view that people inherently yearn to contribute, if given the space). If we show our heart and humanity, people may entrust us theirs – that’s the opposite of objectivity and neutrality.
Who commissions and supports organisational assessment and change? A donor, the organisation’s leadership, or a wide group of internal and external stakeholders? There has to be genuinely alignment for sustainable positive change – at least between leadership and OD consultant.
In the past I accepted to proceed before I had genuine leadership buy-in for the kind of change I believe in and love to facilitate. That is a dangerous proposition: If the ripple I help create is not endorsed and owned by the leadership, those who stick their necks out in response to my support, are exposed. I have to be daring and patient: Say it when I’m not convinced that we’re on the same page and step back.
There’s no negotiating on principles, and pushing by the donor won’t do. In fact, if there is a difference between the leadership and me, I have two hard things to do:
Refrain from action and truly accept the leadership as it is.
“Damn, if only you would accept my beautiful principles, I could do great work for you!” does not work. The biggest challenge in OD is not disagreement about the future we want to create, but accepting the diversity we start from. To target a change of hearts it is not enough as OD practitioner to talk so well that the leadership does not dare to openly disagree – it challenges me to endure and embrace the tension between what I long for and what really is.
You might be interested in the PhD research that I’m doing with professional development workers and activists in Bangladesh – in-country nationals, rather than ex-pats.
The situation of local professionals has been sorely overlooked in the relatively recent spate of ‘aidnographies’ that seek to capture practitioners’ reflections on the experience of doing development, but I hope to change that, a little.
I’m particularly interested in expanding the scope of these kinds of development practitioner studies to include the affective and emotional aspects of development work, and attach an abstract that explains my research in a little more detail.
The recent announcement of new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed between nation states and a phalanx of civil society organisations, reiterate the pressing need for action to combat…It is within this much wider context that I want to examine some very specific aspects of how workers in the global development industry and their allies in civil society operate.
The World Bank’s influential World Development Report of 2015 calls for greater reflexivity on the part of development professionals. The audience to which it speaks are those people involved in interventions in the ‘Third World’ aimed at tackling structural inequalities and injustices. These interventions are anchored in the values of universal human rights and are made manifest on the whole, through an approach to global development dominated by neo-liberal ideas and Western management practices.
Central to both the human rights and neo-liberal perspectives on development is a conception of the individual as the ideal site for autonomous, self-reliant, rational decision-making, moral responsibility and rights-bearing. Paradoxically however, the concomitant and prevailing three-sector model of development (in which state, private sector and civil society work in synergy) renders the individual and associated personal, psychological and emotional aspects of development entirely invisible.
My PhD research is an inductive exploration of the personal biographies and professional experiences of middle-class NGO workers and activists in Bangladesh. The study investigates how our internal (emotional and psychological) and external (social and material) resources are put to work in the service of developmental activities.
The emerging premise is that in order to develop (or change) others, one must engage in developing oneself, and to develop oneself, one must care for oneself and be cared for and developed, by others.
I think the “individual agency” constraints are different for local practitioners and for those who work in a more international contexts.
“At certain levels, people only hear what’s familiar to them. What we learned was not connected to our deliverables, so it didn’t seem important.”
“Even though everyone says it is good to share and learn from mistakes, it is sometimes very risky for people at our level.”
“It would have taken too long to explain the context.”
Many practitioners themselves have a role to play in protecting/ widening institutional space for good social change practice to flourish – there is a lot of work on organizational practices and culture, but not enough on managers’ individual agency in development organisations to enable social change. A good question to ask may be,
Another question may be:
By Andrea Rodericks
I have had a few occasions over the past year to reflect on some version of this question with different groups of people (NGO project managers, interns, research partners, INGO participants of a working group focused on organisational change). Consistently we ended up on some combination of the following (which is a mix of competencies and practices):
I don’t think there is one “ideal” image… but I really appreciate practitioners who are neither timid nor over-confident, and ask questions that make me think; Do not try to fit everything they observe or experience within their understanding of the world too quickly; Are able to step back and see a bigger picture and observe different world views; and are not too worried or insecure about their career, and willing to take some risks.
Very insightful views from Frank Page. My 30 years of experience in the sector agree with most of this. When I make presentations to about this to all stakeholders, people fully accepted this is true and that ‘all of us are responsible’. Some said, this is how the sector operates, one person said ‘if you don’t like it leave it’. People seem to be happy with the status quo and not really ready to change. Someone suggested that downward accountability could change the situation.
A common challenge with the International Development Practice is the tension between our desire to control, see everything linear and prepare plans versus the realities of the practice which is complex, blurred and fast changing. We try to do things where the control and linearity make sense, while in the process lose the opportunity to learn, be flexible and work with the opportunity. As a result, we deliver development which is in some cases, not sustainable, irrelevant to the locals and short term. One example, I use in lectures is about the gross misunderstanding of development practitioners and donors that school building is the key to the education. Full control and plans were executed in building thousands of schools in Asia and Africa, but many only used to keep grains and animals. Very little benefit to anyone.
|What do you think are the most important practices and competencies of a social change/development practitioner?
|Listening, observing, be flexible and able to change the mind-set. Ready to put aside the trainings and qualifications to understand better, what is required, where are bright spots, how change happen etc.|
|What is your image of an “ideal” social change/development practitioner?
|Sympathetic and caring to other people. Ready to share powers and take decisions collectively. Ability to see the bigger picture and inter-connectedness. Ability to lead people and help them in learning and achieving their goals.
|What challenges does such an “ideal” social change/development practitioner face in trying to live up to that ideal in the real world?|| I think one common challenge is our desire to have a career and security of job. This means, individuals could be competitive. This creates problems of lack of trusts, relationship, information sharing etc.
|How have you personally navigated these issues?||I tried to keep a larger network of friends, people, students and mentors. Did not hesitate to ask questions and shout for help.
|What questions should we be asking that we are not?||Is there anything I might learn from this illiterate person in the middle of nowhere, without any assets, who cannot write or speak properly?|
Many thanks for the discussion, we need more like this.
Mansoor Ali, PhD
Dear Joanna and others
Thanks so much for this inspiring conversation. I really appreciate the ideas that you are posing. I too would love to discuss more about this, as we have much to learn. Meanwhile, here are a few thoughts from our tentative steps in this area at Catholic Relief Services.
I am particularly struck when you write below about, “the ability to be self-reflexive and critically inquire into our own practice, perceptions and assumptions…a willingness to consistently learn from the experiences and knowledge of others, to be able to convene and facilitate spaces which include the voices of the most marginalised, and being willing to adapt and change your practice where necessary.” That certainly resonates with what we have been trying to do. One example: we have recently developed a competency model for ‘MEAL’ (monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning) that includes one labelled ‘Analysis and Critical Thinking’. In the model we describe this particular competency as, “…challenging biases and assumptions, posing thoughtful questions, pursuing deeper understanding of evidence through reflection and perspective-taking…” I think this sounds very much aligned to what you have written.
Much of our current thinking and pilot activity has come about as a result of an ongoing collaboration with colleagues at Virginia Tech and the Cornell Office for Research in Evaluation who have written much on ‘evaluative thinking’ (ET), essentially critical thinking applied to MEAL. With them, our current approach to strengthening staff and partner capacity in this area has been informed by the writings of Stephen Brookfield who has written extensively on critical thinking. Surfacing assumptions, being open to multiple perspectives, being open to saying ‘I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out’, a sense of modesty and humility about the development endeavor, all with a view to trying to navigate a complex pathway is core to this work.
If this early approaches show promise, then one aim is to find ways to infuse this way of thinking in the fabric of our agency systems (programmatic, operational, etc). We agree with Patton when he writes that “embedded evaluative thinking creates lasting impact.” We hope that in time all project staff and partners – from frontline to head office – will be defined not merely as ‘aid deliverers’ but more valuably as ‘reflective practitioners’ who are encouraged to contribute to project decisions.
Some early and tentative (!) lessons to date are that: 1/ Staff already possess the ability to be self-reflexive, but there are potential significant benefits arising from encouraging and enabling greater intentionality in its practise; 2/ critical, or evaluative, thinking requires a mindset that embraces unpredictability and uncertainty. I recently saw a ‘gaping void’ cartoon that said, “Nothing changes until mindset changes.’ How true that feels, and we have recently begun working with our ‘leadership’ to effect the kinds of changes in mindset we are seeking. 3/ Our hunch is that this kind of thinking will inspire and, arguably provide a conduit for, the emergence of demand-led adaptive practices. Our work to date hints strongly at the prospect of evaluative thinking serving as a vehicle for greater frontline staff and community member involvement in development processes; 4/ A whole-system response is required to ensure ‘complexity-aware development’. As it is currently construed, development work presents practitioners with a Sisyphean challenge: to foster in short order positive social transformation in a context of endemic unpredictability. Once again, thanks for the stimulating conversation and food for thought. Best wishes,
By Mieke Berghmans
Having been a social change practitioner for quite a while and having been trained as a social andragogue (and thus being ‘dipped into’ Freire, Mezirow, Marie Parker Follett, and other transformative pedagogy theorists) years ago, I fully agree with Joanna’s answer! I am really grateful that this perspective was brought up.
It’s maybe not that surprising that organisational development has shared points of interest with transformative pedagogy. Indeed the thinking of Marie PArker Follett or Argyris and Schon has been highly influential for both the organisational development field as well as the field of transformative pedagogy, adult learning and education.
As for Joanna’s remark about values and how to put them at the forefront of our practice I personally believe that, as Joanna says, both profit as well as non-profit are concerned with values. What is different however is that the profit sector is driven by profit (values are important, but are not the ultimate criterium), the non-profit sector (or many organisations within this sector) is largely driven by values, ideas or principles (like solidarity, emancipation,…) , or maybe its better to say ” a desire for a better world”. Often these principles are ideas like emancipation, transformation, social justice, participation, democracy.
It is exactly this value driven character that drives NGOs to adopt participatory, emancipatory, democratic strategies and I agree with you fully that the different competing demands towards NGOs make it sometimes quite difficult to embody these values.
I think that time and timing is an important factor that makes ‘putting the values into practice’ quite a challenging mission. I have often come across participatory processes where long and constructive participatory discussions are suddenly cut off because a director, facilitator, staff member decides that ‘ there has been enough talking, we need to do something now, we need to start seeing results’. All the ownership that was created, the expectations that were raised, the issues that were discusses … are then suddenly brushed of the table and suddenly ‘it’s business as usual’. This issue of timing can of course be related to competing demands of the different stakeholders (where the donor is often presented as the one who wants results soon); but I think it also has to be linked to ‘human nature’ (impatience, the need to see results, the urge to ‘do something’, the incapacity to continuously deal with unpredictable processes).
Maybe one of the qualities that the ideal social change practitioner needs to have is to be able to adjust the pace he wants to adopt to the pace that the process (the stakeholders, the participants, the …) requires.
By Joanne Coysh
Someone who sees their knowledge and skills as the most important aspect, who is interested in developing processes and programmes through one-way consultations rather than collaboration and always see projects involving tables, tools, and frameworks – rather than a social process.
Someone who spends most of their time in offices away from the context, talks to donors and other ‘experts’ rather than the people affected; who does not value the knowledge, resources and capacity of the people in context, but rather arrives with pre-defined programmes/ solutions and adapt them to context.
They see their role to help, advise and inform rather than to facilitate. They produce great reports, tables, project plans but have no connection, empathy or understanding of the issues or the people affected…. Maybe you get the picture!
Unfortunately, the biggest problem is the system and a development sector and/or processes which value technical skills and knowledge rather than the softer social and personal skills. This means that the DP is faced with conflicting forces and often while social change/ development practitioners would like to work in all the ways stated above it is not easy within a system that is organised around entirely different and more bureaucratic principles. Therefore, I think it is difficult to consider the level of individual agency without reference to the system – because they are so interconnected. Are DPs really willing to step out of the system to bring about change – or can we/they challenge it from the inside?
There are a lot of examples in clinical legal education and justice education in relation to this. If we can and how do we teach the softer skills base, such as critical inquiry, reflection, empathic listening? My experience is one of exposure and giving the students the opportunity to work directly in these situations with good support. However, it is important that there are a number of fundamental principles which inform their practice and that they can be peer reviewed by the actual people they are working with. I also think we need to challenge students to challenge themselves and their view of the world.
By Joanne Coysh
Many thanks for this. I really liked your posting and invitation to collectively explore the questions surrounding ideas of the social change and development practitioner, which in themselves challenge us to think more deeply about our purpose and approaches to working. They require quite a lot of reflection but will try respond to the questions you have asked. These are my own reflections and I haven’t really addressed or referred to the other contributions so far.
For a number of years I have taught law and human rights students where the aim was to challenge their perceptions and assumptions the role, purpose and approaches. To challenge them to think more deeply about the power relations embodied in the system, who controls that system and how. While there is a certain base knowledge which can provide the resources and tools to ‘do the work’, there are also a number of softer skills, competencies and practices required of a social change/ development practitioner which go far beyond the technical expertise and, are possibly, more important. By far, I consider the most important of these to be the ability to be self-reflexive and critically inquire into our own practice, perceptions and assumptions that we all bring into any situation. This is coupled with a willingness to consistently learn from the experiences and knowledge of others, to be able to convene and facilitate spaces which include the voices of the most marginalised, and being willing to adapt and change your practice where necessary.
This need to be self-reflexive links directly with a curiosity to learn from others who live the experience with empathy (but not sympathy). To be able to recognise the agency and capacity of people to change their own lives and provide the support for them to do this (often not financial). A willingness to be able to say, ‘actually, we don’t know the answer to this’ but a curiosity to find out more and work together with others to explore the question.
I think so, but it requires looking outside the development paradigm and pulling on other disciplines which may give us insight into new approaches. It raises a lot of questions. For example,
Reflexive, inquiring, curious and creative.
Someone who is engaged or willing to listen to, experience and empathise the lived-in situation of others without an agenda or judgement, who seeks to understand and learn from the people in that context, to find out where the gaps exist and work with people in partnership to fill those gaps – to building on their skills and knowledge.
They need to be creative and adaptable in the knowledge that at all levels the landscape is constantly shifting.
Able to build good solid relationships and interested in people
Hi Alfredo. “Should we be encouraging and training students to challenge dominant practice? ” What drove you and your firm over time to engage in this risky yet rewarding shift that you are attempting.”
My view, yes. I did my first degrees at Berkeley, which at the time (1970s) was all about challenging dominant practice. And this changed me forever, in that I never take it for granted that the way things are done = the way things must be done. (On the other hand, it took me some years to understand that there are reasons why things are the way they are, and a value in understanding the dominant practice before attempting to change it.)
If I were in your position, I think I would aim to teach these:
“What drove you and your firm over time to engage in this risky yet rewarding shift that you are attempting?”
I think of the average adult lifecycle in three phases:
|Stage 1: Under 30
|Few obligations. No mortgage. No kids. Free to take risks. Before I was thirty I had started a social enterprise in Papua New Guinea and grown it successfully for 7 years.|
|Stage 2: 30-50
|Kids. Mortgage. Risk averse. Even if you run your own firm (as I did) one is “chained to the wheel of turnover.” Clients have be treated as gods. All focus on winning work, doing work to external satisfaction, meeting payroll, managing cashflow. Would be the same if one had a job
|Stage 3: 50 and onward
|Some assets accumulated. Financial buffers in place. Professional standing more secure. Kids left home. An opportunity to take risks if one chooses to. Some don’t. We have.|
If I were training young professionals I would advise them:
* don’t think in terms of job, unless it is as very clear short-term experience or cash generator
* think instead of long-term personal mission, to be carried out through a small firm, collective or as a free agent
* use Stage 1 (above) wisely, and start thinking from the beginning of how to navigate Stage 2 so you aren’t pressured into risk aversion and conformity
* don’t just learn your profession: learn your business as well.
* congregate with others of like mind.
By Alfredo Ortiz
Thanks for these insights David. I also feel the constraints of funder agendas and my colleague Kent is particularly interested in the constraints that control/quantitative evidence movement is generating. At the same time, I have been fortunate to have worked quite a bit with a Belgian NGO/funder a few times in the last 2-3 years that has allowed for critical (rights based) and creative and emergent process, even while espousing results based management and measurement.
As educators though, what should be our message? Should we say “these are going to be the CONSTRAINTS which you must work within”. Should we say: “your job is to PUSH THE ENVELOPE and find ways to support critical change processes, to both educate and subvert conservative donors and development policymakers”? Or should we leave that up to them completely and focus on PROFESSIONAL COMPETENCIES?
I know these questions are loaded, but the bigger problem is we don’t discuss much of this at all, even though these practices and policies are pervasive and will soon be encountered as practitioners enter the field.
Even more interesting, to me, is what drove you and your firm over time to engage in this risky yet rewarding shift that you are attempting. Here, the practitioner is part of the solution so how are we not part of the problem (even within the constraints)? I don’t meant this in your case, but as an open question. Back to my question:
I think this is your most critical insight: “I’ll add one more–we believed ourselves to be “neutral” facilitators helping an organization move from point a to point b. We saw ourselves as “outside” the system.”
Of course, you are not outside the system, you are within it, and “the system” is a powerful set of social influences that moulds behaviour.
Two of the factors in the system which militate against the ideal of development which you set out, (and which I agree with) are:
* the fact that we are trained to serve a COMMUNITY, but are paid by a FUNDER. This is a CONFLICT and generally means that funder priorities win out. This conflict is further made difficult because community needs are dealt with explicitly, but funder priorities are often communicated and enforced tacitly.
* the increasingly tighter controls now tying funding to PRE-DETERMINED OUTCOMES. This militates AGAINST community exploration of their OWN vision, concerns and solutions. The demands for evidence-supported effectiveness and efficiency creates fewer and fewer gaps for communities to create or enact their own way.
Our small firm is currently rewriting its strategy to move more consciously towards the ideal of practice. Following this, we are going to be reworking our business model to overcome these two factors. We expect this to be risky and difficult (though rewarding.) However, we are convinced by many decades of practice that the idea practice requires a fundamentally different business model.
So I don’t think it is the practitioner who is the locus of the problem, but the fact that after graduation they are plugged into a system which requires from its workers a different kind of behavior.
By Kent Glenzer
Let me kick things off with my own reflection on some of these questions. I have three assumptions that need to be surfaced. First is that good development gets at root causes of problems in a substantial – not superficial, or merely discursive – way. I don’t consider anything as “good development” if root causes are largely unaffected.
My second assumption is that when dealing with complex problems related to structural inequality, intergenerational injustice, or denial of basic human rights (the kinds of problems I’m most interested in), contestation over what are root causes is inevitable. It is inevitable for political, disciplinary, ideological, philosophical, and epistemological reasons. And the contestation is neither trivial nor merely academic: the contestation is constitutive of the problem system.
My third assumption is that development largely occurs through and by organizations – increasingly groups/networks of organizations – and organizations are messy, inconsistent, boundedly rational, subject to frequent changes due to change of leaders (all of whom want to make their mark, not pursue previous strategies), and driven importantly by Boards of Directors that pursue largely survivalist aims (perpetuate the organization) and, increasingly in the 21st century, demand simple, quantitative performance measures.
What, within the frame of these three assumptions, are crucial competencies of a good development practitioner? One I’d call, “Savviness to surf across knowledge regimes.” They have to be able to navigate across a wide variety of fissures and fractures that divide actors in ways that actors themselves do not necessarily grasp fully, and those actors are also development practitioners in many cases. This competency means that practitioners can speak in many different discursive registers, can strategize how to bring opposing views together, and are adept at finding legitimate and powerful points of convergence. A second competency is what I’d call critical historical systems analysis. The beef I have with a lot of systems thinking is that it is a snapshot merely of what is now; superficial day-long workshops that “get the whole system in the room” usually accentuate the problem. What’s left out is the work of the historian, the critical theory analyst, the political economist. A third competency is inventing new good practice. My classes – like many others – spend much of their time on exposing students to known, good or best practice. We don’t of course want our students to reinvent the wheel, or make the same mistakes we made when we were in our twenties and thirties. However, there is a substantial difference in the ability to deploy or replicate best practice and invent new good or best practice, in a particular context.
In my nearly three decades as a development practitioner, I found that we need groups of people in organizations to deploy the above competencies. Too often, one person – a loner, a maverick, the critical ombudsman – carries the entire weight of these competencies. That person – depending on their personality and organizational savvy – can be either a kind of organizational hero (she says or names things that others do not, and is admired for it) or a pariah. In both cases, the organization itself tends to remain unchanged. The need for groups of like-abled and like-minded turns this into a leadership challenge: leaders must actively recruit such people, and actively put them into work spaces together.
If my outline of competencies limns the borders of an “ideal” development practitioner – I naively do believe that this is the kind of practitioner I’m trying to educate in my Masters level classes – then at the level of individual agency it is important that this genre of development practitioner is tactical, choosy about where to push and where to concede, and realistic about how deeply entrenched systems of power and privilege are nudged. Such a practitioner considers themselves a long-distance runner, not a sprinter. A decathlete, not a specialist. An entrepreneur, not a revolutionary.
By Alfredo Ortiz Aragón
I’ll add an example of my own; one that touches on the need for context-specific practice, which I successfully avoided for years! (yet not on purpose).
For many years I facilitated organizational capacity self-assessments, meant to help NGOs with whom we were working to better understand their strengths and weaknesses and take action to improve these weaknesses, based on the overall score on a particular capacity category (e.g. “leadership” or “financial management”, or networking, etc.). As time went on me and some of my colleagues realized that the actual “self-assessment” session was often highly charged and rich, with people in different roles in the organization opening up difficult conversations about how they saw and experienced the way things actually worked, and what they thought about it now as they reflected critically about it. Then, we would see that much of that richness would evaporate in an action planning session in which we neatly prioritized problem areas and developed an action plan to address key areas. Action planning appeared to “kill the buzz” that was generated as people engaged with each other in rich conversation.
And yet, we held on to the action planning for years, because that is what the methodology entailed….
At the same time, we were definitely trying to be creative–over the years we improved the methodology in ways which enriched the self-assessment dialogue even further, largely by introducing creative exercises to help draw out conflicting versions of organizational experience. But we stubbornly held to the idea that
I’ll add one more–we believed ourselves to be “neutral” facilitators helping an organization move from point a to point b. We saw ourselves as “outside” the system.
Some of the assumptions above are more problematic than others and some may not be problematic in certain situations. But I and we continued doing things the same way for a long time, only stopping to make creative tweaks, but not critical tweaks that may have had us focus more on the conversations than the tool, and more on the relevance of these conversations to the most important work in which the organization was engaging. I am more aware of this now, but see many of our students highly focused on filling their toolboxes to apply somewhat a-contextually, like I did. I do believe now that this approach reveals a problem with the practitioner.