Capacity building: straight from the lion’s mouth

3 May 2012

A few years ago, the BBC showed a series of programmes on ‘the toughest places to be …’. One of these shows was about the toughest place to be a midwife and it featured a midwife from the Midlands visiting Liberia to work with peers there. The differences between the British and the Liberian midwife’s work conditions could not have been more different it did not take long for both to find themselves at ease with each other, reassured by the fact that they were the same. Their jobs and roles in society were fundamentally the same.

The British midwife spent the first few days observing her peers work, she asked questions, and stopped to reflect on what she saw. Much of what she saw she found shocking and at times difficult to digest but, if I remember correctly, she held off any judgement and just paid attention.

Towards the end of the show she took charge. Having gained the trust of her Liberian peers she decided to show them her way of delivering babies (a way that involved a lot less crying and a lot less blood). The reaction of the Liberian midwives was immediate. They got it. They understood why she was doing things differently and what was the effect of the differences. She was not ‘the northerner’ who went to tell them how to do things, but a peer, someone who had the same skills as they had but probably, because she had the luck of working in the UK, had access to more information and support.

This was peer to peer learning. No intermediaries were necessary.

As a Latin American working in the United Kingdom I have always tried to involve Latin Americans in development projects in Africa or Asia. Often, the response I get from donors and clients has been the same: but what do they know about Africa? Worse: what do they know about ‘development’? (Note that ‘development’ here refers to the discipline of development studies.)  I think that I have only been successful twice and in both cases the researchers involved were able to deliver better services and at a much cheaper rate than any ‘development expert’ from the UK that had been considered.

The Aid industry (donors, NGOs, development think tanks, consultants) often present themselves as brokers but I like to see them (us) more as buffers or barriers to direct peer to peer learning.

On my way to Cairo on Sunday I read a brilliant article on the British support to the afghan Army on the FT Weekend Magazine. Andy McNab wrote about the way in which British soldiers were shadowing Afghan soldiers and offering advice and support. No workshops, toolkits, or consultancies. There wasn’t an intermediary in sight. Only soldiers talking to soldiers.

The contexts in which the British and Afghans learn, train, and work are clearly different. Their cultures are different. They relationships with others members of society are different. Even their languages are not the same. But as professional soldiers they share a lot more and this is sufficient to learn from each other. The model has worked so well that even the Americans are now ready to replicate it (they are 18 months behind the British on this one).

One of the best quotes from the article is from Brigadier Patrick Saunders:

“Sheren Shah (Commander of the Afghan National Army) is our boss., it is as simple as that. We are not here to produce British soldiers. We are not here to replicate the British Army. We are preparing the ANA to function without us.”

The point I am trying to make is that when it comes to supporting think tanks in developing countries maybe the best way forward is to try to get people with experience in the things that the think tanks want to learn about to spend some time working there. It sounds expensive but the fact is that there are plenty of young yet experienced researchers, communicators, and managers who are actively looking for opportunities to work in developing countries. They may not know much about their contexts but they are sufficiently smart of understand them and adapt their approaches to match. By spending time with their hosts they will be able to learn about the nuances of the organisations, advice on new approaches and methods, introduce new attitudes (often think tank researchers tell me that what they need is someone to encourage them to ‘think less as academics’), and even links to global networks.

Researcher to researcher; communicator to communicator; manager to manager. Forget intermediaries (unless, of course, its to build the capacity of intermediaries).