31 May 2011

Impact Indicators

Is an intervention worthwhile? What is its impact? Resounding questions, often resulting in hefty debates when answers are being posed. Questions that demarcate real battle grounds, and rightly so.

For me, a world-dweller living in rural Africa, these questions are almost existential, providing the basis or justification of our very presence. And thus they tend to lead to big boosts when agreement about the answer is found, or to stress when answers are being challenged.

Of course, I have got lists with indicators to watch and communicate about. Their relevance are presumably based upon conclusive research, that did prove causality with the higher goals set.

It is actually a daunting process to (have to) accept or (less often) set indicators! To be able to do so well informed, we follow much research on many subjects. I try to assess applicability and relevance of proposed indicators for specific activities to measure our performance on inspiration of people in rural communities to reach their collective and individual potential.

However, I have a lingering feeling of uneasiness about most indicators. Is it because the underlying process of deconstruction feels so foreign to the holistic nature of the rural African reality? Is it because underlying research seems to be done from desks placed in the North, from an expatiate subculture, or in locations conveniently near hotels or airports? Is it because it feels that indicators and goals seem more based upon priorities and supply from the North, then requests from the South? Or is it because they point to outcome only, not to process nor culture?

Progress, or impact, results from a process. They are not a product that can be purchased. A process must being experienced collectively, by all stakeholders involved simultaneously. Processes lead to change - from situation A to situation B. Most indicators are helpful in quantifying each of these situations. However, they do not describe the process, nor impact within specific cultural environment, and thus do not necessarily give indication of local worth, nor value, or impact.

In the rural African setting the process within its specific cultural setting is most important, as it indicates the attainability and sustainability of the outcomes, and possibly replicability. Thus I propose indicators that, for instance, measure welcome of the change by the majority of the community. Indicators depicting if a large number of people has come to support the change within existing cultural realities wholeheartedly, with individual community members displaying explicit comprehension of the change and its benefits, and each testify about having a hand in the change. Such, in my view, provide for real indication of worthwhileness and impact.

30 May 2011

Cultural Bumps

I have seen quite a number of international people leaving rural Africa, quite a number preterm. After a extensive period of investing and giving it all, they are often depleted, disheartened, or even cynical. Also I have seen the rural community query international people, wary of motives, highlighting misunderstandings, and resenting interference. These are all hurts due to cultural divides.

It is not a pretty picture.. In rural Africa, foreigners are still mythical creatures, considered equal to having money. People from wealthy countries – and, remarkably, nationals from major towns, arriving in private vehicle - are considered as having unlimited resources, and consequently approached as such. Explanations of resource limitations fail to register. Possibly, only local persons living long term and close with such mythical people might dare to attest to certain levels of resource limitations.

On the other hand, international people often have little knowledge of the local environment, or even the country. Communication is difficult due to language barriers. Further there is a gaping divide in levels of experience making evenly matched dialogue practically impossible. Also, international people in rural Africa are limited in their abilities to extend relationships to the middle class, mostly living in cities, whom possibly address identical contingencies.

Due to the cultural divide, local and not-local people are hampered to interpret answers received on questions from each other. Knowledge of social codes and structures are imperfect, and understanding of the context, within which 'who communicates what', 'how does communication takes place', and 'why does communication takes place' is limited. Therefore assessment of answers is heavily challenged and underlying reasoning is often validated only after a long time of observation.

Frequent resource sharing requests by local people lead to mutual frustration, with international people not recognizing communal inclusion offers, and local people not recognizing the others' intend. Of course, the local environment is pervasive, and people from outside face the issue how to assimilate or risk emotional depletion and separation.

23 May 2011

Theory of Change

In a changing world, the rural and deprived areas in the world seem to get the 'short end of the stick'. There are numerous calls for action, in all disciplines, but little change is being observed in most rural areas in Africa. However, need for change continues to persist, to attack the lack of availability of skilled people and prohibitive high costs of service provisioning in rural areas.

Based upon an innovative and methodical approach, in Macha change resulted from action and consistent focus on people. Documentation followed, seemingly in a paradoxical process involving well thought/discussed-through interventions with on-the-fly model adjustments. This interactive learning processes, consistent over eight consecutive years, is based upon action research using observation methodologies like appreciative inquiry and backward mapping. The resulting Theory of Change now guides the overall process and fuels programs aimed at special user groups or at large-scale capacity building, all designed to bring about community-wide change.

All in all, the focus remains – and must be - people, in our case 'the local talent' (or local hero, or change-maker, whatever you call them). A local talent sacrifices an imminent, and often hallowed, ambition for western/urban self-development to a season of personal growth benefiting traditional/rural community-development. The local talent has reached a measurable level of fruitfulness when that person is training her/his successor.

The organisation facilitates this process by capacity building in both human and engineering assets – involving values, training and funding - and aiming for retention capacity thus created in the Works Group. We learned that when the local talent is supported within a respectful learning environment, whether on site or remote through e-learning, while taking care of bare existential necessities (food, shelter, health, etc), personal growth can be explosive. That growth of local talent is aligned with a process of involving all stakeholders deciding on local priorities and focus within recognized local cultural expressions.

And the local talent, seeing the environment progress sustainably, with quality of education and healthcare for her/his children improving, is encouraged, and stays, and leads.