By Dagny Skarwan
For around three years, I was involved in coordinating the project ONG-IDEAs with German and Latin American colleagues in Central America as well as NGOs in Colombia and Mexico. It was an experience that made a lasting impression on me. For me, learning how to guide NGOs and facilitator groups in Participatory Evaluation processes and advising them on how to use tools to create a culture of evaluation in their target groups has been a great learning experience. It has also involved growth that has been charged with intense emotions and memories.
Going beyond the formal monitoring proposals (such as creating transparency and accountability), the participatory monitoring focus that we have developed at ONG – IDEAs includes our proposal to generate processes that empower and provide moments of learning for all those involved, focusing on the perspectives, self evaluation and commitment of target groups.
ONG-IDEAs’ approach focuses on several tools that are able to generate information and enable analysis. They work when those who facilitate work together with those who are motivated and available to change their outlook, behaviour, attitudes and practices. It is important to clearly express what I want to change, what my objectives are, why I participate in the group or present an idea for a project.
For this reason, participatory monitoring prompts efficiency from individuals and groups as the tools allow objectives to be agreed and then measured whether individually or together as a group.
In the ONG-IDEAs project, we have trained facilitators – two per organisation – to learn about how to use the tools and how powerful this approach can be. We also help them decide if it is applicable and able to be tailored to their area of work, group context and specific project.
We have had several discussions with our German coordinator about the role of the facilitator because different NGOs have different ways of understanding what “facilitating” means.
We often observe that it has been understood as “giving talks” and “going to teach” whilst facilitation is not associated as often with “listening instead of speaking”. The ability to “listen” in a group setting means prioritising raising awareness, exchange, dialogue, learning and decision-making. It is about giving up power so that the group and those in it feel like they have leading roles.
In the ONG-IDEAs’ approach, a lot of emphasis is placed on facilitation being vitally important to generate conditions that are adequate for participation. Facilitators from some NGOs went on to “empower” more individuals from their organisation.
One experience that stands out in my memory is the support I gave to a community health NGO on the concept of participatory monitoring and some tools they could use. Their facilitators were trained to then introduce the ideas to another group of 12 individuals from their field. It was a maternal and infant health project in Guatemala; more specifically, in indigenous communities with high levels of chronic malnutrition.
“What type of groups do you work with?”, I asked them and they answered “with breastfeeding mothers”, others said “with health workers”, “with community leaders”, “midwives”, “with the fathers”, “nurses”. Each facilitator had been assigned specific groups.
So, it was necessary to understand more about the way they approached each group of people: “Why does this project work to train all these different people and groups?”.
“So that the maternal-infant mortality levels improve”, replied the first facilitator who was in charge of working with local leaders. “You, who works with the health workers, what changes are you going to see there?”, I asked.
The response was “the same, that the maternal-infant mortality rate goes down and that there is an end to malnutrition”. “I see”, I commented, prompting further examination.
“And you, who works with breastfeeding mothers and a group of mother supporters, what are the objectives of those groups?”. “It’s the same, improve maternal-infant mortality, breastfeeding and malnutrition. We began this work with various groups in each community and a team that is very committed to this overall objective of lowering the maternal and infant mortality rate over three years. But we still want to go further. I understand that we all have the same overall objective and so we should converge the efforts of several stakeholders to improve community health, each one in their role should and could make changes”.
In response to this explanation, I altered my question: “So you who works with the leaders, what changes do the leaders need to make in their leadership role to improve maternal-infant health? You, who runs the breastfeeding mothers group, if these women participate in the sessions over a period of time, what would motivate them to make changes, do they have any objectives of their own?”.
And so, finally each facilitator managed to think more specifically: could it be that those involved want to change or modify something in their own behaviours, practices or skills? Will it be the same for everyone?
It definitely wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t easy for the facilitators to identify what changes would be desired by the groups or individuals. For example, will the changes be the same in the first year as they are in the second? Will the community leaders desire the same changes as the health workers? Will the mothers want the same as the men?
When we talk about Theory of Change, we know that a logical framework with its indicators is key in deciding most project strategies and how resources are invested. In this session, we were able to reflect on each challenge each facilitator faced in their specific role and contribution and went on to understand the complex interrelationships in a set of social stakeholders who can contribute to or make difficult the attainment of objectives and change.
At this point, I remember that the facilitators learnt something new. While they clearly knew what activities to do and they had done planning, were they as clear on the specific stages and sequence of change necessary for each target group so that others could also change in this complex system?
I kept on questioning and redirecting: “OK, but if you are the ones who are directing and training the groups, and if you don’t know what changes could be made based on this new founded knowledge, do you really think the people, leaders, health workers, breastfeeding mothers etc. are going to know? How and when are they going to decide on the changes and commit themselves to them?
This led to a wonderful time of reflection! We broke down the Theory of Change piece by piece in order to locate where the work could be effective in the different groups. Where am I in this? And how is my role connected to the others?
Knowing how to ask the right questions to generate discussions based on the group’s experiences opens up reflection and encourages interaction within the process. On this occasion, it was very clear to me that lessons on participatory monitoring cannot be “abstract”.
In order to be able to use and facilitate the ONG-IDEAs tools well, the facilitators and team have to know “their place” within the project’s change strategy and not only focus on the project’s activities. Rather, it should be evaluated based on its effects and contribution. If I make it clear what a process of change is, my work as a facilitator will be focused in such a way that my contributions to the project are taken on board.
If the people involved don’t propose change, it is less likely to happen. If the stakeholders or groups themselves are the ones who in line with their established aims and their own commitment are able to measure their own “self-efficiency”, they are going to move towards their own goals and this is when participatory monitoring can achieve its purpose.
There are many things that I have learnt that I wanted to share, but I will leave them for another time. At ong-ideas.impact-plus.de you can find various documents that look at how participatory monitoring can be used for learning and empowerment.
Dra. Dagny Skarwan I Consultant in Sustainable Development