Monday, 4 April 2011

Please stop distracting busy people

Just got back from South East Asia, where I have advised a human rights organisation. I had a hard time trying to make sense of the reports the organisation wrote to its donors. The information was sorted into three categories: "outputs", "outcomes" and "impact". For example, the fact that they organised a workshop was an "output"; the number of people who participated in the workshop was an "outcome", and the amount of extra knowledge people seemed to have after the workshop was called "impact". You can imagine that it was not easy to read those reports.

When I asked people in that organisation why they had that strange way of cutting reality into fine slices with uneven contours, they said it was "results-based management" and they had learnt it in a 10-day training course which their entire senior management team had to attend. For a full two weeks. Human rights had to wait.

Those who had attended the course found it a bit "theoretical", they said, and they were not sure they used the concepts correctly. I asked to see the course materials. It mentioned drops, ripples and waves. It said that the "results chain" was made up of "inputs", "outputs", "outcomes" and "impact". (Ah. And how about the results?) A "result", it said, was "a describable or measurable change resulting from a cause and effect relationship". (Ah. Then, what in life is NOT a result?) People, it said, are "inputs" to a project. "Outputs", it said, are "short term" and "participants are involved". Do you see what I mean?

Imagine a dozen of busy, brave human rights workers who run an organisation that assists hundreds of people in dire need every week. Imagine those people with their heavy responsibilities locked into a conference room for ten full days, gazing at Power Point slides and ruminating monstruously muddled concepts of strictly no practical use to their work. How many phones rang during those ten days with no-one answering them? How many people in that country were NOT released from illegal pre-trial detention during those two weeks, leaving their relatives in distress and poverty, because no-one was there to defend them?

I am sure the donors who organise and / or fund such "capacity building" do it with the best intentions. But could they build some "capacities" that have something to do with people's actual work? And the "receipients" who find themselves in an incomprehensible and pointless training course, why do they not get up after half a day and say, "I have had enough of this. Now, let me tell you what we really need..."? Does anyone think of those "ultimate beneficiaries" down the line, the lives of those we have promised to save and improve?

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