Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Getting out into the field.

It’s a popular phrase in development. It means getting in touch with reality, meeting beneficiaries, stakeholders…people. It means testing hypotheses, gathering new insights, verifying old assumptions. It means getting a different perspective. It means uprooting myself from my office chair, and loosening my vice-grip on my laptop and walking around. That’s what it means to me anyway.

We met with communities for a CIDA funded programme review to discuss how the project was implemented, and the changes in the community that have resulted from it.

It’s hard working for the planning and coordinating units in the regional and district government to have a real connection to “the field.” We spend 80% of our time in an office, so that those who are in the field can hopefully be better supported. It’s an important role, and it’s difficult to get around it with all of the necessary documentation that goes into managing a program with any transparency and accountability. But as I start to meld into a spreadsheet, and my vocabulary starts to reflect a user manual for MS Excel, I begin to feel a little separated from it all.

Throughout my day I endeavour to keep in mind who we’re working for at the various levels of “the field.” It’s really important that I don’t become part of the “problem” by being a resource intensive guest who is more interested about completing my project than in the people I’m working with and for. At the end of my placement if my colleagues can’t point to some positive change that has occurred, supported by my placement, then I’ll have failed in achieving my goals. This change is to be more than an added tool. I’m talking about behaviour change; sustainable change, in people.

That’s right, as controversial as it may sound, I’m trying to change the way people do things through targeting their behaviours, not just the system that they operate in. Sure it’s biased, and based on my values. But I believe that as long as I’m open and honest about them people will be able to make informed decisions and I’ll be an influence rather than manipulative. I believe the sort of analysis it entails also helps me to identify with my colleagues.

I had an interesting experience when I went to Akosombo for a mid-term review on Development Partner efforts around monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of programmes and data storage and analysis. There my boss (the Regional Economic Planning Officer) and I presented on behalf of the 3 nothern regions on the challenges we face at a regional and district level with M&E and data storage and analysis.

We stood in front of heads of departments from UN Agencies in Ghana, and National level representatives from the National Development Planning Commission (the commission that advices the President’s office on development), Ghana Statistical Service, Health, Education, and the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs. As we talked about the operational challenges of implementing programmes, and throughout the 2-day review, the disparity became clearer between the different orbits that we’re circling in at the Regional level as compared to the National level.

I'm standing in front of the Akosombo Dam with a representative from UNFPA, and the Regional Economic Planning Officers of Upper West, Northern (my boss), and Upper East Regions.

Operating within a results based framework, most of the focus was on the desired impacts and outcomes of each of the programmes. This was rightfully so, as focusing on desired outcomes and impacts is key to the whole framework, but it’s not all. From what I see at the Regional and District level, attention to the activities and outputs is a critical component, and often miscalculated. It seems more attention is placed on identifying the types of results we’re looking for, and not enough placed on designing interventions that will produce those results. The operational project management of these District and Regional planning and coordinating units is under resourced in terms of operational budgets, staff and skills, which makes it extremely challenging to accomplish the work that they do. The offered support is usually a 3 day workshop, and you can read in my last post about how effective those are.

As my boss and I endeavoured to present these realities to the delegation from Accra, it struck me that I am in the field—at least compared to the point of view of the rest of the delegation. Suddenly the urgency of bringing the field realities at the Regional and District offices to the understanding of National level offices became all the more apparent, because it has everything to do with reaching the community field level – where it all counts.

It’s all relative I guess. Still, I’m going to have to get away from this laptop for a little while.