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