yet another fascinating learning experience

Last week we attended the start-up workshop for the African Model Forest Network – VSO partnership.  We treaded water with 55 people from about 15 different platforms of actors for two days.  At the end we were asked to say – in three words – how we thought it went.

It was the most beautifully engineered opportunity to let it rip… but we didn’t.  Being sarcastic is one thing, but after such an eye-opening experience, we are left with only this one option:  reframing!  Can’t lie and can’t diminish the impact of the experience?  No problem.  Behold the power of reframing:

Caroline:  my three words are “enriching, informative and revealing”.

Greg: mine are “a first step”

What we really wanted to say, with destitute surrender:  “on fait avec. We make do.”

But of course we didn’t.  We soldier on.  No romantic notions about saving the Earth’s second lung.  No blind assumptions that we all want to hug trees and sing kumbaya.

Greg and I attended as both participants and presenters – giving us an opportunity to sit on both sides of the table.  Greg put on his well-worn and slightly abused monitoring and evaluations hat and informed partners about VSO Cameroon’s tools.  I gave the briefest of statements on my work objectives in engaging in livelihoods and income generating projects.

We only had a small role – leaving the bulk of the work to VSO Cameroon’s staff.

Yet we went into this workshop knowing that although our fellow volunteers had been on the ground for a few months already, most of the persons who would attend would be quite unfamiliar with VSO and its approaches.  No problem, we could handle that.

What we had failed to appreciate was that our otherwise collective organizational good intentions for participation, transparency, good governance and collaborative approaches could be met with such rigorous enthusiasm (read: at times outrage, at others explosive, and with a mix of anger, accusation and mistrust).

Why?  Well, as in all program start up phases where the purpose is to challenge the status quo, the idea of change can be a hard sell.

Participants at the workshop came from various walks of life, with only one thing in common:  they were all based and working within a model forest.  So interests, knowledge and capacities varied considerably.  For instance, some were highly educated – others hardly at all.  All these interests meant peacocks (male and female) strutted their stuff, jockeys elbowed for position and partisans erupted into song.

But it didn’t mean that the end goal of a vibrant model forest was undesired.  The workshop participants, when asked what were the biggest problems facing forward movement, answered:

35% – conflicts of interest

28% – lack of team spirit/teamwork

21% – communication

14% – corruption

So it is no wonder that the discussions were spirited (read: confrontational) and energetic (read: intense).  In the end of course, everything that was discussed will eventually have a benefit – but only if we can capture not only the essence of what was said, but also what was meant.

In other words, there would be no choice.  This was about to be yet another “fascinating” (read: word starting with “f” that is not found in our scrabble dictionary) learning experience.

Let’s now call this YAFLE – Yet Another “F-ing” Learning Experience

Adding to this theatrical bonfire, VSO’s choice of words had profound consequences. We heard that there should be no link between governance and participation (linking the two is the very essence of our programme).  Some people took offence to the use of the term “marginalized people” – apparently no one had the stomach to talk about “who marginalized whom”. We debated the differences between policy and politics (which happens to be the same word in French making this much more complicated).  We realized that any sentence beginning with “j’ai une preoccupation” (I have a concern) foreshadows the dishing out of a heavy dose of criticism.

Besides flare-ups over word-choice, there were also approaches that sparked fires among this varied group of participants.  Some took extreme offence to VSO’s “hard-line” (which we think is pretty soft!) approach to financial management. “What do you mean I have to provide receipts for everything?!?!”  Others didn’t share our desire to work with the “grassroots” – those more disadvantaged or those more isolated from decision-making.  As well, there was also a strong feeling of dismay over higher-level decision-makers and government officials who had chosen to stay away. After all, we needed them on board to create the link between participation AND governance.

In the end, we absorbed all the various views and ideas, put our foot down on some, discredited a few more, and reframed others in order to bring positive change.

So yes, the discussions were:

enriching (read: there was a wealth of divergent views)

informative (read: what was previously said only in private, now spewed out of people’s mouths)

revealing (read: all the cards – positive and negative – are on the table for all to see)

They were definitely a first step.

on fait avec.

Note: AFLE is a term a colleague of mine uses, but I think after a year and a half in Cameroon, YAFLE is much more appropriate.

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~ by Caroline Spira on April 30, 2011.

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