Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Networks here & there…. networks everywhere!

A few more years and NGO’s working on individual development projects might have become obsolete. Just take a quick look in any NGO’s strategic plan and you will notice that ‘Networks’ and ‘Strategic Alliances’ and ‘Linking and Learning’ are presented as today’s development answers.  Although it would be interesting to scrutinize this assumption, also I have come to accept that networks are an appropriate way to tackle societal issues in a rapidly changing world. Currently I am supporting the NGO where I work in setting up a network on land rights and in our most recent round of discussion I asked my Junior Expert colleagues around the globe for some tips & tricks.
Considering that most of us in the discussion deals in one way or another with networks, confirmed it is in fact a current development fashion. But as one of us rightly pointed out  ’In general I think the word 'network' in the context of development projects is a container concept that is easily used and often not understood…. there is a limitless amount of varieties in the range of formal - informal, size, type of members, goals’. Even in our small group the diversity in the forms and objectives of the networks we deal with was large, varying from group of 'community journalists' to a global network of actors dedicated to the Christian mission of ‘doing good’.  But despite differences from our discussion it is possible to pinpoint several factors that any kind of network requires for effective and sustainable functioning. Now please let me present, in the name of ‘sharing and learning’, my impressions of the virtual discussions I had with my colleague 'development advisors'. 

Core elements & conditions to start a network
First remarkable thing in the discussion was that the main question itself created counter questions. As some of us suggested it is better not to talk about setting up a network’ as networks should ideally evolve naturally when several people feel the urge to link up and cooperate around an issue. It is therefore preferable to take existing relations as a starting point and to expand slowly to other stakeholders and different levels. But what if these relations do not yet exists while you see the added value of exchange and cooperation? In such situation people could be brought together through events and joint actions to examine the potential to evolve as a network. When doing so the facilitator plays a key role to link and ’to create opportunities for a joint discovery path’ before getting people on board. This implies that she or he must study the people, their institutions, their interests and power relations, to plan and prepare the joint events carefully and to give follow up to the outcomes of these events. Once people are on board it is time to define focused objectives, to discuss different contributions and to align expectations. At this initial stage it is crucial that the facilitator ensures there is time and space to answer questions like; what kind of network do we want to become; formal or informal? To what extent do we want to cooperate? Do we consider for instance exchange of knowledge as sufficient or should we take a step further by joining forces in research, lobby and advocacy? If so, which topics and through which activities? What institutional rules and regulations are needed for proper functioning? How do we fund network activities and what financial mechanisms? While coordinating the dialogue on these questions, the facilitator should ensure progress and prevent that members end up in endless discussions. Especially the importance of starting to undertake actions, both at the initial phase as afterwards, can not be overstated because for every network’s sustainability it is crucial to combine learning with action to have continuous results and the added value….People are only willing to invest time and resources if they see visible results.
It has been concluded many times before, hence it is not surprising that also in our experience proper coordination and leadership proves to be indispensable. Everyone will be interested, but nothing happens if no one takes the lead. Leadership could be either in the form of an institutionalized secretary, a project unit, steering committee, working group or simply an assigned person….. to take initiative, coordinate and to connect to existing larger initiatives and potential funds.

Above all, we all clearly agreed that at the core of any successful network lie passion, chemistry and openness . In general what I notice here is that a network (and any kind of cooperation) really functions around personal relationships, instead of institutional common interest. Beyond the curtain of organizations and institutional interests lie the people, who can make it or break it. In a way you could say that the passion people share to fight for a common cause is the heart, and cordial relations the heartbeat of a network. Without a heart and heartbeat your network will not sustain life.

Author:  Leyla Ozay,  e-mail.  l.ozay@hotmail.com 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Young Professional about virtual exchange

Since 2006, ICCOenKerkinActie and Togetthere enable Young Professionals (YPs) working on development to exchange experiences about their work. The YPs work for local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as capacity development advisor. Most of them work in isolation and have limited possibility to meet colleagues face-to-face to share experiences.

Each year two discussion rounds, taking five weeks each, are organised virtually where the YPs share experiences about how to strengthen the operations of their partner organisations. The group is using a peer-to-peer coachingsmodel. Most YPs participate two rounds. Just before starting a discussion round, the YPs are asked by an online survey to share the topics which keep them awake at night or have a high degree of urgency for them. Some of the selected topics deal with: "How to make my work sustainable?" "How to create local ownership for what I am contributing?", or "How to position myself as professional in a different cultural context?"

After this survey, key individuals, who are willing to take a leadership role in the exchange of topics related to their work, meet via Skype with the online facilitator to elaborate the objectives and facilitation process. The role of the online facilitator is to design the online process based on the wishes and needs of the group as expressed in the survey. So far, D-groups and Skype have been used as the most effective and popular social media for exchange.

A discussion round takes average around 5 weeks. Case studies or key questions, introduced by the YPs, are mostly used as a basis for discussion. At the end of each discussion, one of the participants writes a note which is published at this blogpost 'Everything you always wanted to know about capacity development'. Literature is collected by asking people for links to interesting websited or publications. These references and benchmarks are documented at a virtual platform at ICCO-Cad wiki. In this way, the group builds a share memory.

Recently one of the Young Professionals shared her experiences by a video interview. View the video:

Music on video:

Song: Una Mañana: Musicians: Omar Meza & Fernando Rey, for more information contact: e-mail. yoshihatsukatana@gmail.com

Some comments which were shared by other YPs in evaluations last year:

"The way you experience the discussions and what you get out of it is of course different for each.....When I think back of the discussion I am not able to reproduce all the contents directly, but the first thing I recall is that feeling that the (pre)discussions were good moments to take a step back, to reflect and to share experiences."

"Just being able to share is valuable in itself. It helped me to concretely formulate my questions and issues I encounter."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Energy levels at work

Recently our discussion group of Young Professional capacity development advisors discussed the topic: How do you deal with the situation if you and your collegues have a low energy level at work?

The case was brought up because I am working for an organisation that has been going through a few months of uncertainty and restructuring. A relatively long period for me, as I am only working for this organisation for six months in total. In this period of uncertainty and management change there was not much room for new initiatives. Furthermore, many of my colleagues had and still have difficulties to motivate themselves for their work. An exception is the new director who is doing his best to transform the organisation into a successful and profitable organisation. This situation had quite a big impact on my own energy level.

This case raised the question how to deal with a situation of uncertainty at work and an absence of collective energy to go for it and build a successful organisation? The main question was how to turn this around to increase your own energy and the energy of others. This article does not provide the answer, as that is probably nonexistent, but will give some suggestions and insights into the topic.

A local market in Africa.

The group came up with the following suggestions:

· A crisis could be an opportunity to change something, a time when you can start developing and implementing new things. Dare to take the initiative.

· Try to discuss the passive atmosphere with other people in the organisation to see what can be done to overcome it.

· Do creative things to get new energy, for example to make a video that benefits the organisation in some way.

· Show people where you are working on, instead of just talking about it. If you want people to start acting and implementing new policies or events, you have to start organising. If not, nothing will happen by itself.

· Accept the situation as it is if you are not in the position to change the culture of the organisation. Enjoy, try to do other things that give you energy and accept that your work activities might be different from your initial plans.

· Sometimes it is better to focus on the things you can do, in the time you are still working there.

Young Professionals work with local organisations in challenging circumstances

Since the Discussion Group meeting on the topic the energy level in the organisation as well as my own motivation started to improve slightly. There are two important reasons for this:

The beginning of a turnaround

The motto of the new director is very clear. Everyone gets a chance to learn and adapt to the new line of management. He is prepared to help everyone and listen to everyone's questions and suggestions. However, those who are not willing to change and work hard to reach a successful organisation risk losing their job. He achieves this by rewarding those who achieve good results and clearly communicating the way he would like to see things happening. The positive effect is that performance goes up. The side effect is that there is some feeling of fear against him.

A mental change

Personally, I started to realise I should focus on the things I can do and accept, although it is very unfortunate, that there were two months in which I could not move forward as quickly as I had hoped for. Since we have overcome the ‘crisis’ now the moment seems to be there to implement new things and this seems to work quite well and gives energy! The new director is very open to any initiative to improve current processes and activities.

Maintaining your own energy levels

Before starting my job here in Africa I thought I was mentally prepared for a different working atmosphere. I had never imagined that it would hit me as hard as it did. I do believe the organisational struggles made that it hit me harder than it would have done otherwise, but still, apparently I was not prepared well enough for it.

Besides the points already mentioned, I think the following is important to keep in mind to keep yourself motivated and obtain energy from your work:

· Start by working with some people who seem to be interested. From here others might also realise your added value and start to open up.

· Show people in what way you can make a difference and make people’s work easier by not waiting too long to start implementing your ideas and projects. Often it takes too long to wait for a decision, if a start has already been made the decision is likely to follow automatically.

· Be patient and do not worry too much you will not be successful, eventually things will start happening in most cases.

A story from a Young Professional working in Africa

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The way to interdependence and open communication

Are we a burden to our local colleagues instead of a support?

During the last virtual meeting between several Young Professionals working abroad, a new interesting topic came up, addressing the fear of overburdening our local colleagues, that all of us seem to recognize somehow.

Where does that feeling come from?
We tend to feel very responsible for the progress and results of our labour, taking initiative where we can – always keeping in mind the need for sustainability. We are not here to create dependence, in fact, we want the contrary – we would like the local people to do their work on their own, maybe inspired by us.

At the same time we might see lack of structure, of communication, of financial possibilities – so we take an observing, analysing, suggesting, interfering and sometimes resolving role.
Maybe this gets to a point when we feel guilty of repeating the needs for regular meetings, a more structural approach of activities, better communication between the organization members and so on. When our advices are not taken into account, we might feel that we have crossed the line of being an inspiration to being an irritation; overburdening our colleagues.
How do I find out if this really happens – or is it just in my head? How can I handle the situation if a colleague really feels that I'm a burden?

Be connected, young people in Honduras

Some ideas of my junior colleagues all over the world were the following:

* Make things explicit: Ask what people expect from you and even ask whether they feel as if you are a burden to them. You might find out that it is only your feeling, yet others don't really see it that way.
* Do not give up on being an inspiration: Keep on observing and asking questions openly, instead of giving advice directly – try to connect to the priorities of the organization and contribute explicitly.
* It is useful to do an evaluation and ask people what they remembered most during a certain period of time, for example in the last year. How do they look back on your contributions?

Time for reflection and evaluation

* Let go, if asking questions does not work. You've tried and shown your initiative.
* Trust your own observations and analysis to see what your main contributions can be. When you find these, and people see its value, the feeling of being a burden might get less.
* It is not necessarily bad to play the “policeman” and to keep reminding your colleagues about agreements you made. They might even appreciate it, especially on a long term scale.
* Make a point of working in the weekend: Even just stating the importance of having some personal time for relaxation or private activities, might eventually lead to a reflection of your colleagues.

I personally would aggregate the question to ourselves, if we ever feel that someone is a burden to us – and under which circumstances. If it is that way, we should address this feeling and talk about it openly with our colleagues. Maybe this could clarify any mutual feelings or assumptions and generally relax the working atmosphere, especially because in most of the cases I think that the feelings would be based on assumptions and personal preoccupations instead of real conflicts.
In my time here in Honduras, I sometimes had the idea of being a burden to my colleagues with all the activities I wanted to evolve around, through and with them – while they had hardly time to settle down at night, with all the work they had to deal with.

In the end, not all the activities written in my plan could be carried out as they were proposed, but I showed my intentions repeatedly, which seemed to be very appreciated by the direction and members of Arte Acción. While first I was the one apologizing for asking over and over again for attention, now they apologize for not having dedicated all the time and space needed in order to accomplish with all the established goals in our plan.

I have come to the end of my time here and I feel that all people who have taken active part in my intervention, including myself, did the best they can. In the end, everyone realizes that the idea is to work together – in a constant “interdepence” - being conscious that through open communication and relying on each other, we can create a small change within this society.

Johanna Pohlman
Young Professional Togetthere

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lasting change or passing fancy?

On how to make your work more sustainable

Working as a temporary advisor at a local organization can turn you into a manic depressive in a way. You will have your high highs and very low lows. Sometimes you feel elated because you see people have changed their way of working after you gave a training. But expect to also be disappointed when two months later they seem to have slipped back into old patterns.

Most local organizations are overloaded with work. At the Indonesian human rights organization I work for, more than seventy percent of the work (that's my guess) happens ad hoc. The Minister of Law and Justice says something about a law he would like to have revised, my colleagues immideatly respond. A video comes out of military officers torturing a group of Papuan prisoners, the office phones will not stop ringing for hours. Journalists, other organizations and international NGO's will all want to know what KontraS' opinion is.

My colleagues feel that they don't have time for monitoring and evaluation. Even though I know that it's an investment in the future, I can often relate to them. American management guru Stephen Covey speaks of the difference between urgent and important work. Important being the bigger projects, the in-depth analysis, and self-reflection, while the urgent comprises emails and telephone calls. In my case the challenge is to ensure the important is not always swallowed up by the urgent. How do make the lessons you taught stick? How do you make sure that the change will last?

A group of capacity builders working all over the world, came up with the following eleven tips for making your work sustainable. Very importantly: be realistic and don't let it get you down if big change doesn't happen right away. Instead, celebrate the small successes. They are more important than you may realize!

1. Give positive feedback to your colleagues, so that they gain confidence - in themselves but also in you. This is also a way of building trust. You let them know that you are not here to change everything, you are here to help improve things based on what's are already going smoothly.

2. Break the lessons you want to teach up into small bite-size bits. Do exercises during trainings which people will easily remember or refer to. For example, I use the happy horse analogy for discussing the chain of results in planning, monitoring and evaluation. Now in meetings, my colleagues will refer to “the horse is happy” when we discuss our overall goals.

3. Work with motivated people and those who are open to learn. Help the people that come to you for advise and involve them in your trainings or work. Let them for instance pick methods and share ownership of the work you're trying to do.

4. Don't forget that making your work sustainable takes time. Try to see it as an investment and give yourself time to build trust. Also, plan ample time to go from knowledge sharing to other's actually doing their work differently than before.

5. Convince people of the benefit of your intervention. Make it clear why you are there. First you have to show things and then make people part of the experience.

6. Build in a monitoring system together with your colleagues, to monitor the change process and have a learning process together.

7. Focus on the people, not the systems. Even when your goal is to strengthen the organizational capacity of an organization, start by working with some people you see are interested. By helping them develop the skills, on the long term organisational changes will occur.

8. Work with a counterpart in your work, so that that person is able to adapt new ways of working in the organisation.

9. Try to check if the right conditions are there (such as funds for printing the handbook you wrote), and include these conditions into your plans.

10. Plan for a return visit, several months or years after you have completed your placement. It gives you the opportunity to review the work you have done and give suggestions for improving it.

11. Plan a meeting (at least 6 months before your placement ends) where you remind your colleagues and supervisors that you are leaving. Ask them what they want to have in place or accomplished as a sustainable result before you leave.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A unique challenge: how to position yourself as a Young Professional in a different cultural context?

When I left to Latin America, I did not really consider the challenges that I might face by working in another country. Instead, I focused on obtaining new knowledge and skills. Thus, I read books and materials on international lobby & advocacy and talked to experts. However, during the first weeks at my new employment, I found out that not only the content of the work would be challenging: colleagues were postponing deadlines; everyone was supposing to attend all social events after work -even if one was deadly sick - ; relations were more hierarchic.

Challenges as a Young Professional in a different cultural context
In this period the following question was popping up in my mind regularly: how can I as a person, who has been brought up with Latin American and other cultural influences, have problems with this new cultural context? Or even worse: how could I sometimes miss things I was used to in my previous work such as the many meetings I once disliked? At the same time, I was enjoying being surrounded by my colleagues, who are very spontaneous Latina’s and Latino´s. When I was working in the government in The Hague some people would not say good morning in the elevators and just stare at the floor like zombies. Currently, I am welcomed every day, and several times a day, in a friendly way by my colleagues. Also, they have a lot of knowledge on the practice of children´s rights and they can give their opinions beautifully. Nevertheless, I felt sometimes as if I was in a ´clash of cultures ´rollercoaster that was not going to stop any time soon.

Also, I experienced difficulties in positioning myself as a Young Professional by being in a different cultural context: is this young European girl not just going to be one of those volunteers who will show up a few times and then leave to backpack? I therefore had to demonstrate that I had good professional capacities and that I was willing to adapt to the Latin American work culture. It took me a lot of energy, but eventually I felt that I had positioned myself as a member of the team.

Sharing experiences and solutions
Together with colleague Young Professionals working all over the world we shared experiences with each other. When I spoke to other YP´s in the field, I found out we were experiencing similar difficulties in positioning themselves in a different cultural context. Most YP´s experienced that relations between colleagues are even more important, besides they are often based on gaining respect and power. Here some conclusions from YP´s around the world on how to position yourself as a Young Professional in another cultural context:

1. Start implementing from the beginning. Try to gain trust by accomplishing short term results in the beginning. Gradually go towards the role of facilitator, co-operant or advisor (depending on the context).
2. Give yourself the right title in order to prevent confusion with your Partner Organisation. In case you call yourself advisor, it might be misintrepretated and nothing might happen. If you call yourself 'volunteer', people might have different expectations from you. So give yourself the right title when you begin, in order to prevent misinterpretation and to gain respect.
3. Gain respect by accomplishing short term results or by listening or building close relations and trust with your colleagues.
4. Try to get (moral) support from the regional office from ICCO. This also creates status and respect in the Partner Organization. This has been helpful to various Young Professionals.

Be flexible
Luckily, I found out that things become easier when time goes by: just give yourself some time to adjust to it and don´t forget to enjoy all the good things to keep a good balance. However, I do still struggle with some issues: how to position yourself as Young Professional when sometimes you feel you are crossing certain boundaries? Should you completely adapt to the cultural context for you positioning or should you also sometimes set your boundaries as you are living in other circumstances than your colleagues, namely you are on your own? Should you communicate about your positioning and problems related to it in a direct way or rather in an indirect way as they are used to in the new context you are working in? Just to name a few!

To end, I believe when you are able to position yourself as a Junior Professional in a different cultural context you have proven to be very flexible as a person. By achieving this, you will be able to work in any complicated setting in the future. Most definitely something to be proud of.

Alice Kooij Martinez
Junior professional lobby&advocacy at DCI