Behind the framework

Lately the team has been doing a lot of thinking about strategy, trying to figure out how best to go about this whole “good governance and evidence-based decision-making” thing. Lots of frame-works, tools, and deep thinking about what change we want to see, what our strengths and assets are to help us achieve this change, and how we want to capitalize on these strengths and our existing relationships in our day-to-day activities.

In all this mapping and strategizing, this flip-charting and white-boarding, I sometimes feel immersed in these SYTEMS. I find myself distilling relationships, organizations, objectives, to lines and boxes on a paper and a collection of key bullet points. It’s been very useful in terms of understanding and framing what we’re here for and what we’re actually going to do, but ultimately, they obscure something fundamental.

The kicker is that ultimately, we’re humanitarians, and the failure and success of our work is defined by the change in Dorothy’s life (EWB lingo – basically, the ultimate beneficiary, the person we’re working for, the Ghanaian who we want to see have greater access to opportunities). Behind these convoluted system maps and two-dimensional representations of our work lies the fact that this work has at its core people.

So I’ve found it critically important to step back from the work, to throw down that piece of paper and fold up the flip-chart and ask – who am I doing this for, and how is this going to help them? To lose sight of that fundamental fact is, to me, both incredibly disrespectful of the people “development” is supposed to serve, and worse, is to neglect an understanding that is necessary for success (how many development projects have failed because they never considered the human component?). The link, especially in our work, might not be simple or clear, but if it can’t be found, you’re going to run the risk of ending up de-motivated or worse, doing bad development.

I’m writing this at work, at the Tamale Metro office. Our field officers go out into the field all the time – I join them when I can. I live in Tamale, I live with people I’d be proud to serve. And yet still I have to stop and reflect, to pull back and give my head a shake, to consciously look beyond that framework. If I have to force myself to do this, and I’m living the life that I do, I wonder what it’s like for someone in an air-conditioned office in Accra, or a heated office in Ottawa, or a sky-scraper in New York. No wonder so many development projects just look crazy from the ground.

Agree? Disagree? How do you manage to keep this front-and-center in your work? Comment below!

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4 Responses to Behind the framework

  1. EXCELLENT post Dan. I also struggle with this – let’s keep reminding each other why we’re here!

  2. lindsay says:

    This was such an interesting post Dan. I’m finding I’m struggling with those questions at work as we speak. Very critical questions….I’m currently working at such an elevated and removed level, so maintaining that ground-level perspective is quite a challenge. I have to keep reminding myself to go back to the most basic elements of what we’re trying to get done, go back to the original conceptions and drawing boards for why we started the project, and to the people/groups working on the ground. What do they need? What’s missing that we can provide?
    Once I get a sense of the ground level perspective, I try to work up from there, to create a bridge with the higher level thinking, and hopefully meet in the middle, where the project actually does what it’s supposed to do.
    But I also find that the goal-posts keep moving, and the targets are elusive. Anyway, all of this to say, I get where you’re coming from. Keep stepping back and reflecting, getting your bearings and taking the plunge.

  3. Pingback: Development Digest – 25/02/11 « What am I doing here?

  4. Dan Olsen says:

    I’m one of those people sitting in an air conditioned room in Accra right now 🙂
    It’s easy to get caught up in the Accra development community talking about triggers and targets set by Ministries and Development partners.
    In a couple of weeks I’ll be going to visit the community I first stayed with 2.5 years ago on my first village stay. I’ve been back 3 times since. It’s the place I go to re-connect with Dorothy and to reconnect with the people I’m here to serve.

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