Seizing Windows of Opportunity and Jet Lag

My life as a consultant often involves too many plane routes and travel schedules. It is less glamorous than it sound. Pack and unpack, do the laundry in less than a few days. Adjust to different time zones with little time to recover. Still get the job done. During the trips, the waiting area in an airport or the little “desk/tray” in the plane – when the person in front does not recline their seat- are potential temporary offices where work competes with movies, sleep, and time to grab a meal. The beginning of this project was no exception. Check out how thinking on this project happened in real time.

20+ hours on the road (Johannesburg, South Africa / Sao Paulo, Brazil / Buenos Aires, Argentina)

As you may have read in a prior post, a window of opportunity for learning had opened up for the PSAM regional learning community in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. When I said goodbye to colleagues at Bulawayo’s airport and O.R. Tambo, I had no certainty about whether that window would effectively remain open.

I took 3 flights and a six hour road trip to get “home” and all I could think was “the clock is ticking” to grab onto this opportunity. I had “lots of time – although it never seems like enough – to think about what could make or break the agreement to embark on a regional learning pilot.

I kept going over all my notes from Bulawayo as I stepped in and out of planes. My head was spinning around how to best work with a community of social accountability practitioners that has identified a need to get better at learning and doing together?. A complex puzzle to put together, many pieces. How could we identify all the relevant partners’ urgencies and interests and put together a shared roadmap that made sense overall and for all?

2 weeks to come up with a roadmap (Santa Fe, Argentina)

Clock ticking indeed. In two weeks, I had to come up with the broad parameters of a joint roadmap that would help the partners we met in Bulawayo (now working in their homes across Southern Africa) decide to join in. We needed to build on our conversations, but think beyond Bulawayo. Would this roadmap help people convince bosses and colleagues at “home” that a leap of faith and potential benefits of learning were worth the risk and costs of joining the pilot?

So… what were the make or break issues that the roadmap needed to consider and how to balance concerns?

2 weeks and a recurrent thought: Is there anybody out there? (Rosario, Argentina / Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)  

Lots of work went into creating a living document, open to comments and modifications to make sure we were on the same page with all (or found good enough compromises for all). In the document we invited PSAM’s partners to send us expressions of interests were they willing to experiment with us.

A temporary sense of relief came to us when this tentative roadmap was off. The wheels were turning. We are starting to move forward. But of course, relief is short lived when the clock is ticking.

Then, we faced THE question. Will we receive any expressions of interests to actually implement the roadmap? How will our proposal be taken? Would it meet the expectations of the people in Bulawayo? You’ll have to come back to learn what happened next.

Florencia Guerzovich

Learning about Learning

Coming into the position of MEL officer and learning about social accountability was not  my ‘forte,’ but since embarking on this learning journey there are few lessons that I have picked up that I wish to share.

In civil society we are constantly battling the tension between having a lot to learn and a limited amount of time in which to learn. Civil society schedules are packed full of activities and deadlines driven by one thing only – achieving results. By the time all is said and done, there is just too little time or energy left for learning.  Why set aside time to learn because others say we should when we could be using that time to achieve results? Time is precious, we need to put it to use wisely and no one can argue with that!

Being in civil society myself and having worked as an implementer before taking up a learning position, I remember being a worker bee, constantly on the go with my eye on the results. As I delve deeper into this Learning Pilot project, my job involves setting aside significant amounts of time with partners, helping them to reflect on all their hard work with the end of goal of improving social accountability practices for achieving results (note that the achieving results still remains central part of what we do). I have come to realize learning is by no means an academic exercise for those interested in developing pie-in-the-sky theories. Learning is an important exercise even more so for implementers because the barrier between them and the next level of achieving results may be the inability to value learning and setting aside insufficient time to learn.

Another obstacle to learning I have discovered is the risky thinking that as experts or implementers in our field we have learnt it all, so why keep learning? As we have discovered as a program, after a decade of training on social accountability and doing in country work on social accountability, we can’t stop learning. There is still so much to learn because contexts, times, people, policies are always changing and bringing with them new challenges. The only way to maintain the edge and expertise is to always be learning. By continuously seeing the value in learning and setting aside time and resources do so as an organization helps us.

I am also finding that academic learning is very different from learning in the real world. Learning in the real world need not be a complicated, time consuming, exhausting or confusing. There is also no need to fear failing a test or exam- the real world is there often is no right or wrong answers as nothing is ever black and white. We are dealing with diverse contexts and challenges, all we can do is experiment with strategies/activities, reflect on our actions, and adapt. You can achieve a whole lot in the real world by simply being observant and reflective or thoughtful.

In closing, here are some tips I have picked up about learning in the real world so far  pilot:

  • Value learning and make time to reflect on what you are doing and why as lessons emerging from doing sometimes contain the ‘secret sauce’ to moving to the next level.
  • We are never expert enough to stop learning, there is always something new to learn. Always be learning!
  • Don’t be afraid to learn from failure, there is often no right or wrong answers in the real world, even what we consider as failures can’t really be failures if we make note of them and learn from them.

Yeukai Mukorombindo

A Belated Intro to the RLP, Its SYSTEM Focus, and Its Whisperers

We have referred a lot to the RLP in our initial posts. Gertrude said it was called the Regional Training Program and it’s changed the focus to learning. If you are not part of the Community, apologies- we have probably not introduced the program and the team well enough! Here is a brief attempt, so that I can get to a point I want to make.

The Regional Learning Program and its Community is bigger than this pilot. Every year, several times a year, the team trains people (and those that would like to become trainers) on social accountability. I attended their Grahamstown Fundamentals course with a group of people from Malawi and Tanzania; Uganda and Mozambique. There were civil society individuals, a member of parliament, and a trainer, among many others. Sure I am forgetting many – so I am ready to hear about it in the WhatsApp group! Yes- months after the course, there is a VERY active WhatsApp group. Fundamentals is very intense – do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

You’ll probably hear about the course many times in this blog. For now this is what you should know: in Fundamentals it is all about getting and working the SYSTEM. Not a one social accountability tool or another; not just a focus on the budget or the integrity institutions. It is about juggling many pieces of the public resources management system, bringing them together and linking them so that they contribute to progressively achieve rights. In the two weeks of Fundamentals, you look at each part of the system with a magnifying glass and then you zoom out to get the big picture. Sneak peak in the graph.

Many – and I mean hundreds – from across Southern Africa have been trained in this course in Grahamstown. Also, there are localized versions of the courses that PSAM supports. I learned anecdotally that in some countries funders and civil society groups have been through the training and use its insights in other capacity building efforts. Question: directly or indirectly, how many people across the region have been trained in PSAM’s rights, systems approach to social accountability? Fear not Elsie and Yeukai, we are not head-counting in the pilot! As Gertrude says: “we should not focus our MEL systems on the number of seats trained and things that are relatively easy to measure over things like depth of engagement, improved understanding of PRM systems and the extent to which this deeper understanding is being used to develop more strategic advocacy interventions, the nature and extent of systemic change.”

If you really want to learn about it you should get in touch with the RLP’s training coordinator at psam.training@ru.ac.za

Training is a big part of RLP, but Gertrude also warns ““we and our partners need to avoid falling into a trap of becoming training focused in our strategies.” What else does RLP do? RLP also partners with organizations after they go off to apply the Fundamentals’ approach across Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a numerous and diverse crowd. Some RLP community members are INGOs, others national and local NGOs. Some are small organizations, others are the tip of the iceberg – leads of large networks of civil society groups who in turn mobilize others. They come from different country contexts. They use and navigate the system to realize different rights. Land? Check. Health? Check. Housing? Check ….

The RLP team has a regional community to continue learning – that is where we got the diagnostic and OK for this exercise. Yep, despite diversity there is common ground!

The RLP team also tailors partnerships with organizations and groups of organizations in countries. This brings me (finally!) where this blog post started: Gertrude and the RLP Program Officers. They are the ones who do the work of nurturing these partnerships day in and day out in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively.

I had to highlight the RLP Program Officers. When I think about Bulawayo there is this whisper that keeps popping up in my head: “I know my people”. Translating the whisper in context: you should pay closer attention to “my people”’s expressions. They are not really into this idea as they may seem to you. I know, I can be aware and resist but it is not hard to look like the Chapulin Colorado! Well, at least, listening to the whisper and putting it in perspective – that will come in handy in this rollercoaster ride. Different perspectives.

Want to know who helped out? If you are part of this community, you may have already guessed. If not, perhaps if you stick around you’ll figure out!

Florencia Guerzovich

Thinking Our Way Out of the Headache of Learning…

If learning is as much a characteristic of being alive as breathing, then why do we need to bother asking tedious questions like ‘…What makes us learn? …How do we learn? …and How do we even know that we are learning?’ After all we don’t ask ourselves on a daily basis: What makes us breathe? How do we breathe? And how do we even know that we are breathing?

Believe me, I was as clueless as the next person when it came to answering the above questions. I probably still am. Yet the PSAM’s Regional Learning Programme (RLP), with my full support, has decided to embark on a two-year ‘learning journey’ in a bold attempt to try to marry our theory of change with the messy and non-linear playground within which we practice. Needless to say, we jumped into the exercise without a proper understanding of what we were getting ourselves into (which is probably for the best) but with a lot of enthusiasm for the end goal which was ‘to demonstrate to the ‘world’ that we are, in fact, ‘learning’ from our social accountability practice.

The PSAM is leading this journey as part of a community of practitioners who engage (or so we like to think) in systemic rights-based social accountability work. The primary thing that brought us together was that we all wanted to ‘learn’ from our social accountability practice. During our last meeting, as we sat in a conference room in Bulawayo – the second largest city in Zimbabwe for those of you who, like me, mastered the art of open-eyed sleeping in geography class- wondering what we had got ourselves into, this fearless woman from Argentina decided to yank us out of our comfort zones…before coffee even!

This woman took us through an exercise that forced us to question some of the assumptions we had. I won’t go into the mechanics of the exercise but by the end of it, we were asking ourselves the types of questions that would leave anyone reaching for whatever drug would ease the inevitable migraine that was kicking in. To give you a taste of what I am talking about, here are a few of them:

  1. Is our right to social accountability a process or an outcome? Are we only able to engage in contexts that are conducive for social accountability work or is our engagement a way of making the context progressively more conducive for the interaction between government and citizens? What influence does our perception of this have on what we learn from our social accountability journey and the reasoning behind the many decisions we will make along the way?
  2. Yes, context matters! But to what extent? Under which circumstances? In what ways? When, how and why are practitioners’ experiences, adaptations, decisions unique and when, how and why are they they similar regardless of context? How do we define context in our interventions? Is it a geographical location, a cultural or linguistic grouping, a sector, or something else entirely? How does our definition of context determine what we learn and why?
  3. Accountability is always a good thing when it is something we expect from someone else. While we were all very consistent about our expectations from government to justify and explain their decisions, did we see this as something that only applied to them or did this principle also filter into our own expectations of ourselves and of each other on the demand side as well? Are we as enthusiastic about the principle when it is an expectation imposed on us by government? What does this teach us about ourselves?
  4. If I was to die on the job tomorrow and wanted to leave a ‘legacy box’ for my successor that passes on the most important lessons my journey has taught me without one having to have been on the journey with me, what would I put in the box and what would I leave out? How would I organize my box? How would I even make someone interested in keeping the box open long enough to learn my lessons with me?

So, do you have a headache yet? Don’t say I didn’t warn you. What I do want you to know, though, is that this was a turning point for me. I suddenly began to see the point of the questions I asked at the beginning of this blogpost. It also suddenly dawned on me this was going to be one of those exercises that made you feel terrified and exhilarated all at the same time. Although at that point I felt a bit more terrified than exhilarated, I became totally clear about one thing.

Whatever the outcome, this was not going to be one of those marketing exercises where we show ‘the world’ how well we are learning. Personally, I expect this to be an enlightening and enriching experience for anyone who is brave enough to join the journey. If there is one expectation I have, it is that it leaves me with a new understanding of the social accountability ‘playground’ that I have been trying so hard to change for so many years.

Gertrude Mugizi

The Eternal Challenge of the External Consultant

Every time a new project begins, some recurrent feelings and uncertainties burst into every external consultant’s mind. Logistics, finding the right approach, time allocation, bonding with a new team, being a better researcher project after project…

But there is an additional challenge that I am confronted with, time and time again, as an external critical friend: I do not want to be like or appear to be like ‘Chapulin Colorado’.

If you didn’t grow up in Latin America like me, you are probably wondering who the Chapulin is. The “Chapulin Colorado” is a beloved red grasshopper from Mexican TV, played by the very famous actor Chespirito. This character is a clumsy but well meaning anti hero – a parody version of traditional superheroes. He can detect problems from far away and appears out of thin air when someone in distress cries out loud: ‘Oh! Who will defend us now…?’

The people who summon him initially think this man in a grasshopper suit has magical superpowers. They trust him to solve their problems. As he addresses the problem, Chapulin often gets some things right. He even tends to brag about his smarts and tiny successes, aided by his classic catchphrase: “You didn’t think I had it in me, did you?” Nevertheless, Chapulin never finds a one shot solution. He inevitably stumbles with more obstacles than he initially is able to foresee, but he keeps trying. After all, his heart is in the right place. It is sometimes silly how this well intentioned underdog continues to fight it out.

Time and time again, as a critical friend, I find myself thinking: ‘I am not a red grasshopper; I am not Chapulin’. I share the good intentions, but hope to be better tuned to my contexts and the challenges ahead so that I don’t stumble against so many obstacles that look like obvious for anyone else observing Chapulin (or me). As I try to think how to support colleagues in Bulawayo, I suspect that although they may not be familiar with this Mexican TV character, they most probably have dealt with similar real life versions of this character – minus the comedic effects – before. External, critical friends that do not perceive the obvious challenges and obstacles ahead in the quest to find a solution to difficult learning challenges.

So, how to avoid becoming the parody of the parachuting foreign consultant that I suspect is going through people’s minds when they first see us? How do we build trust – a bridge between the external view we might be able to bring, and the internal points of view, for the sake of the project? How does one take advantage of this regional learning opportunity, if not by gaining the Bulawayo people’s trust and open the way to a mutually enriching work path? The ever present struggle of an external consultant: here to support learning and learn herself by doing with others. Hard contextualized work, informed by cross-national perspectives; no magic.

Florencia Guerzovich

A New Chapter in My Life and to MEL!

If someone a year ago or even as little as 6 months ago, told me I was going to take up a position as an Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) officer, I would have never believed them. This is because I pictured MEL officers as stiff, stringent men in suits, whose responsibility was to peer through hundreds of documents, looking for shortcomings and making judgemental recommendations which most of the time are neither grounded in context nor reality. This image I had conjured up of MEL officers and the work that they do, is nothing at all like me and it did not sound like a career I would enjoy.

And yet here I was as the newly appointed MEL officer for The Public Service Accountability Monitor’s (PSAM) Regional Learning Programme (RLP). You might be wondering then why I took up the position given my misgivings. Well the PSAM is like a second home to me. My career in Social Accountability Monitoring (SAM) began and developed at the PSAM. Even though I left the organization to pursue other opportunities, I still made sure that my work consisted of applying social accountability monitoring in some shape or form.

During the several years I worked at PSAM, I was privileged to witness the adoption as well as adaptation of the SAM methodology (also known as the PSAM approach) in the region. Why other organisations in the region were buying into the SAM and how it is they were applying it in the different contexts has always piqued my interest but my time at PSAM was mostly focused on applying SAM in the South African, provincial Eastern Cape context more specifically the housing sector. So when the opportunity to learn about SAM presented itself in the form of an MEL officer, I grabbed it with both hands.

I wasn’t being appointed to create more complex and confusing numerical indicators, peering through documentation in order to make misplaced recommendations but instead I would be embarking on a journey that will enable RLP and its partners to reflect, learn and uncover their limitations and adapt their approaches to implementing SAM. I would be part of a process that would enable RLP and its partners to make comparisons across contexts for lesson learning for the purposes of improving their overall strategies and social accountability practices in the region.

Further than that, I get to embark on this learning journey with two ‘critical friends’ of the PSAM who through the process of learning about RLP and its partners work in the region can better assist us to capture lessons that would lead to improving our SAM approach for effectively achieving service delivery or public policy outcomes. These critical friends are nothing like the images of MEL officers I had conjured up in my head. They turned out to be two intelligent women with colourful careers whose experiences emanate from working in different capacities as researchers, media consultants, mentors, free lancers, writers just to mention a few!

The cherry on top was that they made learning fun! My first two weeks on the job with ‘critical friends’ of PSAM was by far the best two weeks in a newly appointed and daunting position of MEL officer. They showed me how through meaningful analysis and reflection, the kind of information the learning project will uncover will empower RLP and its partners to constantly test and adapt its theory of change practices and strategies. I am happy to say I am PSAM’s RLP MEL officer mostly because I shall begin this new chapter in my career with the Learning part of MEL which means the biggest focus of my work will involve answering burning learning questions, highlighting and sharing creativity, skill, insight into contexts. This sounds a lot like me and a career I would enjoy – breaking new ground!

Yeukai Mukorombindo

Almost Bulawayo

Making jokes about being asked to leave Zimbabwe back in August helped to take the sting out of the fact that I missed an important meeting. Over the course of a couple of snatched moments after dinner and lunch I had a chance to talk to Florencia Guerzovich about the project. The project that Gertrude Mugizi had introduced to me a few weeks before in broad terms is starting to take shape. Especially after getting a chance to listen to practitioners talk about their challenges and experiences with the perpetually tricky business of documenting learning.

This sounds familiar from other documentation projects I have experienced: an entity (an organization, an individual) has done something over a period of time. There is a beginning, a middle, challenges and triumphs along the way. We need to tell our stories for our activities and choices to make sense. But this Pilot- assisting in the examination of the evolution of a social accountability methodology through its practice in a variety of countries and organizations- is not like anything I have ever seen before…

We are talking about Monitoring and Evaluation and Learning. There will be logframes and strategy documents and piles of information to sift through. There will be indicators and acronyms and references to this methodology versus that methodology- a challenging area for me. Numbers are not my natural habitat! There will be so much complexity- how will something come out of this massive pile of information? Getting an opportunity to learn how that could be done is exciting.

The PSAM has engaged in various methods to document its activities, outcomes, evolution over time. Of particular interest to me in this project is using a public sphere to discuss the complex business of learning: the PSAM’s online community of practice- COPSAM- is a perfect place to experiment with that. If we journal the processes and thoughts and experiences of this Pilot, we hope to invite broader dialogue with  social accountability community, most especially the PSAM community itself.

So in those few rushed meetings in Bulawayo amazingly enough some of the potential of the project happened over a few very intensive conversations and a few initial ideas. The Pilot is ambitious and though the destination is clear, plotting the way towards it will be where the , the dynamic part. Sadly I was back to Dar es Salaam prematurely, which was an excellent lesson for me with regards to the importance of context. Learning indeed.

Elsie Eyakuze

The Road to Learning

Before the decision to Pilot a framework for learning about the adaptation and application of the PSAM approach on social accountability by RLP’s partners in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in August this year, it is important to explain how it all began. Through this post, I will take you through the reason why RLP decided to embark on this learning journey with our partners.

– Gertrude Mugizi, Regional Learning Programme Manager at PSAM.

Learning, in my experience, has been a highly debated, controversial, and sometimes polarizing term. I used to think that since this is the one thing we are born knowing how to do, understanding what it means and why it is important would be a no-brainer …until I actually tried!

When I first inherited the opportunity to head what was then PSAM’s Training Programme in 2010, I was very excited about the opportunity. Having worked in the field of accountability for a few years at the time and having engaged with the PSAM (from the inside and the outside) for about 2 years, I felt that I was able to bring a unique perspective of having been both an implementer within the Programme and a client (for want of a better word) of its services.

One of the first things I did was to propose a change to the Programme’s name from ‘Training Programme’ to ‘Learning Programme’. Having come from ‘the other side’, I did not see the primary value of the Programme as training demand side actors to apply a set of tools. Budget training courses were a dime a dozen and in my experience, what we offered in that regard was similar to some of the other courses I had come across. What this programme did offer that was different from the many budget training courses I had engaged with was an opportunity to change the common perspective on how and why demand side actors understand and engage government on public service management issues.

In applying the PSAM approach, I had at a very basic level begun to understand how the system of government works and why this empowers us to engage government from a systemic understanding of the role of government in the realization of rights. I realized as well that PSAM itself was but one of many travelers on the journey. We needed the proactive contribution of our regional partners just as much as they needed ours.

After much discussion and debate within the Programme, within the organization, and with other social accountability practitioners in the region, we finally agreed that the core value that the Programme adds to the broader social accountability community in Southern Africa was not primarily training; it was the opportunity to learn together about how we can raise the bar in the conversation that we, the African people, have with our governments.

We proceeded to redesign what is now the PSAM’s Regional Learning Programme into one that endeavours to create and sustain a regional community of practitioners committed to learning about how social accountability happens in practice, and how this practice can be improved for the benefit of all citizens in the region.

In my seven years at PSAM, working with a range of accountability stakeholders who do amazing work, a number of challenges keep coming up from both conversation and observation:

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  1. Social accountability is about the conversation that the range of social accountability actors have with each other about what citizens expect from government and how government lives up to this expectation. In this conversation, people who would not normally be inclined to interact, learn how to talk to each other in a way that gets their expectations met. Through the process of interacting, all social accountability stakeholders learn. This learning should help each actor participate better in the conversation next time around. Unfortunately this is not always what happens. We would like to understand why.

  2. While we all agree that learning happens all the time, we sometimes find it difficult to share what we are learning in ways that contribute substantively to the learning of others.

  3. The challenge of retaining knowledge and expertise in this sector is very real. We struggle create self-sustaining work spaces so that when someone leaves, those who remain do not go back to re-learning what has already been learnt at the individual level.

  4. When individuals or organisations enter the sector, only the very lucky ones obtain the type of mentoring that enables them to learn efficiently and effectively from the hindsight of others.

  5. Many of us find it hard to talk openly and honestly about our failures in public, even when we know that failure is often the best teacher.

When our regional community of practice met for the first time in Dodoma, Tanzania in August 2015, a decision was made that we would proactively look for a way to better understand some of these challenges and how to address them collectively. It was agreed that we would look for someone more knowledgeable than ourselves to guide us through this process, and PSAM was entrusted with this daunting task. It was here that our Learning Pilot was originally conceived.

By the time we had thought through what this pilot could look like, gathered the necessary resources for the first year of our experiment and found an expert willing to accompany us on this journey, a year had passed. In August 2016, the community met again in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. We were certain that we wanted to learn how to learn better from our many diverse forms of social accountability practice but were still a bit unsure as to whether we were ready to endure the pain that would lead to the gain. We still had many questions, but we decide to trust the process- so here we are!

Learning About Social Accountability Is Like Jumping On a Rollercoaster

Last August, I flew to Bulawayo to the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) Regional Practitioners’ Learning Meeting: “Defining our Social Accountability world”. I was excited, jet-lagged, trying to wrap my head around the way forward for a tough mission. The challenge was a big one: to work with a community of social accountability practitioners to develop a process to deepen and improve the articulation of their monitoring, evaluation, and learning with their overall strategies and social accountability practices. The wordy challenge was on paper but now, as I met a large diverse group of colleagues, it was about to get real.

We , the “critical friends”

Gertrude, Elsie and I had some ideas informed by our experience and field good practice of possible ways to experiment forward. A linchpin of this plan was Elsie’s and mine ability to become this group’s critical friends. Being a “critical friend” means that we are trying to understand what the context of multiple social accountability efforts is like, and build trust with the civil society groups implementing those efforts so that we can ask provocative questions, provide data and a new perspective and critiques on their work, focusing on improving it. We are critical because what we want is for social accountability efforts to reach their full potential. So, it essentially means pulling off nearness and distance at the same time. This approach has paid off in other projects on social accountability (see here). Could we pull it off?

We are just getting on the roller coaster

Back to the meeting in Bulawayo: We knew our colleagues there would put our initial ideas, including the feasibility of the “critical friend” role, to the test. It was Wednesday and the roller coaster of ideas and challenges was about to begin.

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  • Just listen. For a day and a half I did not present any proposal. I listened; I tried to connect with this new context with its own individual, organizational, and country realities. Every once in a while I was asked to help organize ideas or just decided to point to tensions, or ask for clarifications. I opened myself to others’ thoughts about the “joint learning problem” (or lack of thereof). Gertrude, Elsie and I had taken a risk there. Would others agree with our diagnostic? Would the parameters of our plan make any sense to the group? For now, we were just easing into the ride. If our proposition had any shot at being implemented and becoming relevant for the partnership others had to willingly get on the roller coaster with us. It needed to become the shared ride of many people and organizations across Southern Africa, rather than a conversation of three, on paper.
  • An afternoon and the first “aha!” moment. By Thursday afternoon, I had no certainty that we would have a real shot at a regional learning pilot, which was our goal. I heard that there had been other attempts already, so we needed to convince people of giving it a new try. I suspected that much about the challenges and the sources of frustration (or not) remained unsaid. That is not surprising: so much of the insight about the way things work in social accountability is tacit (check out what colleagues say here).
  • Boom! A shocking moment. “Out of the blue” one of the participants shocked everyone with a particular experience. There was silence and astonishment in the room. At the same time, the vulnerabilities associated with opening yourself up to an honest reflection started to surface. A true steep free fall. Maybe this new collective learning experiment had a chance. (Want to know what that experience was about? Go to Elsie’s blog on this).
  • Coffee break and 15 minutes to come up with a game plan. After the shock, people were expecting the next steps. So, how could we make the best of this chance – a chance that might as well be unique? Should I try to sell the solution I had imagined weeks ago, miles away from Bulawayo? We needed to regroup: Gertrude and I took a coffee break to come up with a game plan.
  • Inviting others to get in the roller coaster with us. We opted for presenting an external diagnostic of what I had heard until then. I also started outlining an alternative for a regional learning pilot we could develop together with them. Like many others, we had to put the local and the external in dialogue from the start (why? – check out the video about the World Bank!). I did not want to use a template or “model,” we had to customize the approach to the need and the context. But people want examples so I suggested considering how we could learn and then tailor a project I had been working on to track and analyze strategic and tactical changes in social accountability efforts in Brazil. Examples here and here.

  • Putting the conversation in context: Examples were just one of the things asked for. Learning and adaptation may be a trend in social accountability and development, but that was not enough in Bulawayo. Organizations there face high barriers to embrace the ideas that drive the notion of adaptive learning. Learning budgets are often limited and there are other obstacles present that require for us to change how we go about doing social accountability. Not unlike projects in the past, I came across risk aversion and vulnerability in conversations with civil society colleagues beyond this group. Is it ever safe to open up honestly about the challenges of accountability work? Many organizations have been built to strive in the status quo and respond accordingly (interested in civil society challenges with adaptive learning opportunities? Check out here and here). It was a tough Q&A in Bulawayo – and that was a promising sign! Reflection and adaptation can look difficult at times.
  • Have we started to pull it off despite it all? By the end of the week, we had accomplished a collective milestone. We had been tasked by the group with putting the vision in a piece of paper. The document would spell out to the group what a pilot would look like, address their many concerns, and help them explain the plan to their colleagues and bosses back at home. Things were starting to move forward, and the learning clock was already ticking. As much of a roller coaster as this first meeting had been for me, I couldn’t wait for the next step to begin!

Interested in more on adaptive learning? Join this google group. To engage the PSAM community check join COPSAM. And stayed tuned for more, we are only getting started!

Florencia Guerzovich