Friday, 21 May 2010

A blank page

Crossing a river with three colleagues after one of our strategic planning meetings

Every story, blog post, novel, documentary, film, plan or song starts with a blank page.

And this blank page is my explanation for why I have written little about my work here. I came here with specific experiences, skills and a good education but putting these into practise in a developing country is extremely difficult. In essence you really do start with a blank page and it takes a long time to figure out where to start.

The other reason is that it's very difficult to explain in detail the work of a VSO volunteer. Though it varies from placement to placement, most of us have responsibilities in the ‘Capacity Building’ sector. Most of us are consultants or to use another bland and for me disturbing term, ‘agents of change’. We bring with us certain skills and we are supposed to share them with our partner organizations. As the VSO motto goes, by doing this we can change lives.

All of this is obviously extremely generic and vague. It doesn’t explain what capacity we are supposed to be building or whose lives we might change.

Me, I’m an ‘advocacy and networking advisor’ and to be honest I really dislike the title. My Advisory role falls under VSO’s Good Governance programme and the work I do should ultimately lead to the improvement of local governance and greater inclusion of the local marginalized people in the deliberative process of that governance.

But what I actually do each day is very far removed from that aim: Going go to the office every morning, sitting in front of my computer; now and again running a workshop or attending some of the hundred activities which the organization runs every month. How this equates to improving governance is at best complicated but at worst negative.

My principal focus at the moment is to lead the process for developing the organization’s new five year strategic plan. Now I know that strategic plans have a bad name. I know that most people think ‘Document which will not be implemented but which has been produced following an expensive and drawn out process.’ But I’m hoping that this time, things will be different. :)

I began by holding individual meetings with most of the staff where they explained to me their understanding of Human Rights and Good Governance, their views of the organization and their reasons for working in the organization. This itself was fascinating. Most of the staffs have a vague and limited understanding of governance or human rights even if these are the principle activities of the organization. The majority are here because they need the cash not because they have this amazing motivation to bring about change in the lives of their fellow citizens. Yet, these are the very people who work from 9am – 8pm six days a week. They value their jobs and therefore are committed to fulfilling their duties. If they could be a little bit more informed about the issues they are dealing with, then their motivation would improve and they could easily multiply the effects of their work.

The next step involved some of those same staff running workshops with the organization’s main stakeholders to find out what they believe are the biggest causes of poverty and injustice in Satkhira Ditrict: 3 focus group discussions with the most marginalized groups, one meeting with local NGOs, one with a group of female adolescents and one with those who are horribly called ‘local elites’. Each meeting threw up something different whether it be that staff generally have very limited facilitation and empowerment skills despite holding close to a thousand meetings every year, or the fact that people felt their greatest troubles are those created by the local environment and weather despite the fact that Bangladesh was in its recent past deemed most corrupt country in the world or that most of the marginalized are basically excluded from mainstream society and its benefits.

The process is coming to an end now and last week I followed up intriguing staff questionnaire responses with a one-day workshop where we grappled with the differences between a programme and a project, with whether climate change should have its own programme or be a cross cutting issue in the other three programmes. We also looked at organizational development and reluctantly discussed issues ranging from increasing salaries to designating a specific toilet for female staff members to developing an Income Generating Activity so that the organization can be sustainable and jobs more secure.

Over the next three weeks, I'll be trying to translate the issues which stakeholders have identified into projects which will form part of holistic programmes which have been commonly identified by all staff. After a few more consultations on the draft strategy, it will be adopted.

But how does this ensure that local governance or participation will improve? Sadly, it doesn’t.

But the theory goes that if the organization is focussing on the right issues as per the views of the most impoverished people, if staff appreciate their role in bringing about change, if the organization moves from project to programme focus then maybe, just maybe, they can work more conherently and effectively and therefore improve governance and participation. (VSO sees these as being major tools in reducing poverty and I agree)

The trouble is that this is all very flimsy. But I hope that by continuing over the next 6months to train staff on things like on facilitation or programme planning using a rights based approach that a real change will eventually come about in their thinking and practise; that once the training centre is built, profits it generates can be used to hold on to and invest in staff whose projects have finsihed instead of hiring new staff for projects determined by say some german missionaries. If the organization's own projects are based on a holistic programmatic and long term approach to reducing poverty and improving the capacity of local governments, then yes, my work will have been beneficial. Unfortunately, it may take three or even five years before this becomes evident.

And, this is the greatest difficulty which VSO faces; how to evaluate its impact. It is also probably the most difficult part of the job – maintaining motivation to carry out day to day activities which may or may not come to fruition....

So this is my job. It is not particularly unique or exciting yet there is a part of it which, for me, is fascinating. It is, however, based on a philosophy which says that the best way of sustainably reducing poverty and injustice is to build the capacity of organization's and people in developing countries so that they can do the rest themselves.

I just hope, that like my writing process over the past couple of hours, it doesn’t result in another blank page.

What do you think, is the VSO way the way to go or are we better off investing directly in building bridges, schools, roads and police forces?

Thursday, 6 May 2010

A day in the life

Everyone’s day begins in one way or another with waking up and of course my own is no different. But to really understand a day in the life of anyone, you need to understand their mood before they went to sleep. This is why my day begins in darkness and ends in darkness.

It’s around 8pm and I’ve just finished dinner. Everything is going well and I’ve just a few things to do before I lie down for the evening. Suddenly blackout. Of course this is not unexpected but I’d hoped it wouldn’t come for another half-hour or so. Because of this I’m unprepared; I don’t have my torch with me and probably don’t even know exactly where I’ve left my mobile. I curse myself as I struggle around in search of some kind of light. Eventually I get the phone and then the torch. Right, that’s it - there’s no chance I’m washing the dishes tonight, nor will I be washing clothes or sitting at my desk or in fact doing anything which isn't a necessity. You see, when all you have is a torch you will more than likely bump into something you didn’t want to see or get attacked by moths who have seen the light. So, I set about my chores with conviction. I brush my teeth while hoping the cockroaches beside the sink haven’t ventured out into the darkness yet. I pick up my cloth which was once an expensive jumper bought in Canada but which today serves to wipe clean the dust from my newly installed bamboo mat (no need for a sheet as the bamboo mat lets the air through allowing for a much more comfortable sleep). Then down with the mosquito net as quickly as possible, tucking it in pretty carefully to ensure there’ll be no unwanted guests joining me during the night. Next is the shower: bucket and jug, cold water (fantastic when stressed by mosquitoes, moths etc)….relief! Dried off and ready to face the music outside the door. After about 20minutes of darkness the cockroaches, usually no more than three of them, come out to inspect my kitchen. I usually meet one outside the bathroom or at the entrance to my bedroom which causes my heart to race and the sweat which I thought I had just washed off to pump again. The cockroaches actually don’t attack they just run around in circles making it especially difficult to guide them away from my room. Eventually with some nifty footwork, they are sent about as far away as a Martin McHugh kick-out back in 1994.

Now, I’m ready for bed…computer plugged in ready for the power to come back, sitting on my bamboo mat with mouse and internet cable. In with me, on with computer and ready for some reading, writing, emails, music, film or series…but then I remember, I haven’t turned off the fans or the lights which are still on since the power is gone…out again…then i’ve forgotten the phone…out again…

Eventually I get settled but spend the first 20minutes killing mosquitoes that are attracted to the computer screen handy enough. By now however, I’m sticky and anxious and by the time I’ve finished on the computer I’m not really comfortable…by 11.30 however, I’m drifting and soon I’m gone for the night….stressed and wrecked.

I normally wake up around 7am and my alarm clock will range from the kids outside, a noisy old van passing by or the cleaner banging on my steel door. I turn around to have a gawk out my window and spot my 8year old neighbour heading to our backyard with about 4empty water bottles. She’s fresh as a daisy as are the kid goats climbing on the stack of bricks across the road. Robby, a 5year warrior, is of course annoying the same goats and every day I ask myself the same thing: how the hell is it that these kids have so much energy, they are always up before me, always running around all day and are still to be heard when I’m hiding in my mosquito net at night.

Anyway I grudgingly pull myself out of bed, pour the water I boiled the night before into the filter and steep some clothes for washing. I open the door to let Nobilla, the cleaning lady, in to fly around the kitchen and my bedroom with a broom and a mop…fifteen minutes later, my bin has been emptied outside the front door of the building and Nobilla is gone. By this point I’ve had my banana, oats and natural yoghurt, my coffee and my toast. I’ve washed those damn dishes from the night before (maybe) and I’m now making a half-effort at washing my clothes. Shower finished and all cables gathered together, teeth brushed, three litres of bottled filtered water and off for work I go…It is now 9am and I walk the grand total of 13steps downstairs to the office. I settle down at my computer and away we go.

My working day is from 9-5 with lunch for an hour sometime and some tea thrown in there at some point too but I’m not gunna go into detail about what I do at work in this post. By 1.30 or so I head either upstairs to cook or to the nearby hospital for rice and spicy chicken curry. Yip, I regularly choose to eat in a hospital because there are no other restaurants suitable for someone who is not a huge chilli fan. If I cook at home it usually varies from Kitchuri (Rice, lentils and spuds with some spices) to pasta with a homemade and generally poorly made tomato based sauce. With tomatoes no longer available I’ll have to invent some other sauce (maybe lentils?) soon. I usually leave the office by 6 and head for a much deserved cigarette, a cup of tea and banter around the fact that Michael is soo tall, doesn’t know how to cook, isn’t married and really struggles with mosquitoes. Truth be told, this is as good as the craic gets and it definitely keeps me sane and good humoured even if it is a bit repetitive. By 7pm I’m back in my apartment and depending on the weather and any number of things, maybe I’ll have power maybe I won’t but I will have to start cooking again soon…

This may all seem a bit pedantic or daft but it is the way things are. It is not to say that there will be no surprises; on the contrary I experience something new at least once a day. Today for example I went to see my colleague’s pond which he rents to a fisherman for about 400euros a year. While there I picked a lime from a tree and then headed off to the local club to play karam (like pool but you play with little plastic pieces the size of a coin and with your finger…)I also returned to power, turned on my lights and fans and steeped some clothes BUT by the time I had the clothes steeped I returned to a kitchen literally full of moths…maybe a hundred or more….

You see, this is why I start in the evening…my day is not so tiring generally but it is by the time that I actually get to sleep that the stress of coping with the unexpected, the mosquitoes, the darkness, the moths, flies and cockroaches, that I’m absolutely wrecked.

But I’m not complaining, I live in a pretty decent place, with running water, shelter and electricity and there are hundreds of people living within one kilometre radius of me who don’t have those basics…and with the rain now bucketing down I’m sure as hell happy my day doesn’t sound anything like theirs.