My kind of progress

This started as a footnote. It got expansive. So here we are. A word I use a fair bit is ‘progressive’ however it’s important to note that its a charged and inherently biased terminology. We each have our own ideas of what progress looks like. I suppose that my affection for it as a word is that it encapsulates various things relating to movement towards a preferable future, from my personal, biased, skewed and influenced point of view. Which is a confusion when using it as a communication tool.

Progress is either moving forward or onward towards a destination, or it is development towards an improved or advanced condition (according to whatever dictionary Google throws up). The definition of the destination or of what qualifies as improved or advanced is entirely subjective. For me progressive is moving towards a destination I’m more comfortable with, even excited by. It is defined by most in that way I imagine. Yet people differ a lot in their opinions of what a comfortable destination looks like.

For me, largely that’s a pseudo-anthropological/sociological perspective. That’s what I see as a ‘progressive’ (if hardly new) analytical approach. It includes aspects of systems thinking and complexity. It includes a lot of feminist theory, which in fact helped me to stitch together a lot of influences from psychology to sociology and, more recently, anthropology. This progressive approach sees everything as a web. It tries to embrace interconnectedness and perspective. And yes, it sees everything as complex, dynamic, pluralistic and relational.

I seem to also refer to progressive in a very political sense and that ultimately leans towards the left, towards socialism, feminism, diversity and representation. The two definitions seem strongly but not necessarily exclusively linked. In trying to understand concepts of dynamics, especially pertaining to power, whether along gendered, class, racial or less popularly discusses sociological axes. And once you do that, you most likely see that various nefarious and actively clandestine influences betray any concepts of meritocracy in even the most smug of societies (read: economies). 

You end up in discussions akin to the pragmatism (right/central) vs idealism (left/liberal) with people – which seem to hinge on: we’ll all, on average, be richer if we accept that gross inequality is a driver of our mean wealth. What I’ve come to prefer, in my definitions of destination, is that even with less mean wealth, a more equal society is, by and large, a better one. I frankly don’t know enough to say that the argument is a) valid or b) that simple. It is certainly neither in entirety. But it seems to be one of the major fulcrums to consider. From another perspective, one argument seems to prioritise economic progress, the other sociological. And so we come full circle. Definitions of progress, of aspiration, of what ‘good’ looks like.

Bringing it back to work – what has this got to with anything other than analytical lenses and polticised statements of opinion? This has a feel of tying into definitions of progress even at a project/programme level. What is good? For whom? When? What is bad? Why? For how long? It’s a perpetually complicated set of questions to address, but one we each do regularly. We make these judgments regardless of how conscious they are. So what’s good? What’s bad? What is progress? We’ll see.

My kind of progress

Art is whatever you choose to (log)frame

Most people see M&E as accountants. Beanificiary counting pedants. Detail oriented, structured, systematic; probably inflexible and unpractical too. Others may see us as journalists, getting in the way asking questions all the time, note pad in hand. The reality is that, at our best, we’re both. And more. We’re artists. Stay with me, I’ll make more sense in a minute, whether or not you agree. Yeah, we’re artists. Ultimately it is M&E’s job to paint an accurate, meaningful and representative picture of a project/programme. To do that, we have two paintbrushes:

  1. Quantitative data – How many? How much? – proportions, scales, broad but often shallow representation
  2. Qualitative data – How? Why? – motivation, description, narrow but deep representation

Think of it this way. Quant. data, they’re the outlines of our painting. They speak to the scale and shape of things, but without much nuance. Qual. data, that’s the colour, the shading, the sense of things. Without one, the particular perspective and type of representation is lost from the other. No lines and you get a blurry, if interesting composition. All lines and no colour and you have a clear and structured overall image, will little sense of nuance, depth of understanding and therefore engagement.

As Fleur Adcock wrote in her glorious poem, Leaving the Tate:

“Art is whatever you choose to frame”

So, if you don’t mind me suggesting it, frame your analyses to create something more artistic. Make it deliver intersecting perspectives and approaches. The reality is that there are always forces that influence whether we become and behave as sociological accountants, or whether we are incessant journalists. To be really powerful in providing accurate, meaningful and representative insights, we have to insist on being both and more. We have to become artists.

Art is whatever you choose to (log)frame

Career Advice, SOAS Style

A couple of years ago I was asked to take part in a panel for a careers session with some SOAS students. As a former student there I feel I can call it a former colonial college turned rage against the machine that got me here type of institution. I loved it there, despite some things I was uncomfortable with. But the idea of giving other people advice triggered a lot of thoughts and ended up summing up a variety of reflections. I found them useful for myself. They may or may not be interesting or helpful to you, and I sincerely doubt they’ll be both. But still. In case I’m wrong, here it is.

“As a male, stale and pale individual, there is nothing our sense of entitlement and fragile ego like more than to talk about ourselves. But as much as a 15 minute monologue about how I’ve gotten where I’ve gotten to, laced with self attribution bias on how it wasn’t related to my ascribed identities, I thought I’d cut to the chase. I chose the wrong career. It took me years to figure that out. It took me some more years to change that. That was only possible because of privilege. Since I started moving closer to what I’m most interested in, I’ve loved it. And to love your work is pure luxury. That said, my previous career has developed skills and insights that have been hugely valuable. I just wish I had learned them in a setting that was closer to my heart.

So let me share with you the reflections built of a thousand mistakes, misjudgements and mostly, a sizeable chunk of listening.

I’m going to share my top 3 tips on 3 important facets that I hope will be helpful to you: 1) entering the humanitarian sector, 2) what to take from from SOAS out into that world, and 3) what you need to know about evidence, Monitoring and Evaluation. And why 3 of 3? Well, because 3 is the magic number. Yes it is. It’s the magic number.

So, top tips on entering the humanitarian sector:

1) humanitarianism isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s barely good. If you want a warm fuzzy feeling, work in a kindergarten. It’s hard and valuable work. Working in this sector is hard because impact is limited by systemic, pervasive and resilient inequalities. Real, long lasting, structural change remains elusive if not impossible. It’s hard because you will work in the business of suffering. But working in this field is also easy because if you do your job well you may be able to limit the suffering of people, whether that’s 100 or 100,000 people – but prepare yourself that 10 may need to be enough.

2) you will never make tons of money, so don’t delude yourself with early retirement. If you’re going to work for probably 50 years now, don’t settle. Find a topic you’re passionate about and then do it. You won’t be able to distract yourself with financial gluttony so don’t use it as an excuse to make safe and dull decisions. If you can’t find a topic you’re passionate about, ask, look, try. Finding those flaming orbs of enthusiasm can be the hardest part in all this so devote time and energy to it. Find a way to express yourself without ego driving your need for attention, purpose or reinforcement. But equally, the strongest people I know have opinions and values that they regularly express. The strongest organisations I know have people who feel free to regularly express themselves and their opinions. But I see more than coincidence in the fact that NGO is only one letter different from EGO. So explore your passion and dampen your ego.

3) the development and humanitarian industries have a wicked sense of irony. Every progressive or contemporary narrative seems to operate within Newton’s 3rd law. To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Flexible funding, designed to support adaptive, needs based approaches was swiftly counteracted by commercialised payment by results contracts. The localisation agenda sought to better distribute power and funding to local and national NGOs. After years of banging the drum it only got traction just as donors became even more risk averse. These problems will frustrate you. If they dont, you’re in the wrong game.

With me so far? So as a SOAS student, here are some things you should consider:

1) You will be surprised at how clued up you are with contemporary topics. The humanitarian sector is overly centralised, disjointed and resistant to change. That means that even reading Robert Chambers will inform you about current issues of debate in the sector. But be acutely aware of your own ignorance. Most of you don’t know what it’s like to be a recipient of aid and most of you don’t now what it’s like to deliver it. If you haven’t done so, read Paulo Freire to get a taste for the complexity of what I’m referring to. And without getting all Donald Rumsfeld, get smart about how ignorant AND informed you are…  and get comfortable with always being a bit of both.

2) Trust the skills and approaches, if not necessarily the rhetoric, that SOAS teaches you – question everything, because everything has multiple facets, everything changes and has various interpretations… everything has influence and is influenced. See it all as complex, dynamic, pluralistic and relational. Always. And be a feminist. Even if it wasn’t just the right thing to do, feminist theory teaches us how to interweave social sciences like no other discipline has gotten close to. I’m not sure I believe in many absolute truths, but if there was one thing that I thought dogma ever sat kindly with, it was feminism.

3) Find people who can give you career advice. On what you’d like to do, what you’d be good at, how to get into them. More generally, use the brains around you. Our sense of academic ego often drives us to isolationist and therefore reductionist perspectives. Share, discuss, argue and see the value in both agreeing and disagreeing – and do so with fellow students, academics, with anyone. You need only look at social psychology or recent political trends to understand that the conversational separation of ideals serves only to polarise people further into buckets of self satisfied ignorance.

And finally, to get more specific about careers, round 3…monitoring and evaluation:

1) At worst, M&E is for sociological accountants.  At best it’s for practically minded social scientists with short attention spans. Find the right organisation and you will be responsible for ensuring that listening,  learning and analysis drive the production of knowledge for open access, accountability to people other than donors, and the adaptation necessary to provide more meaningful humanitarian response. Find the wrong organisation and you’ll be bean counting stats and twisting graphs that placate northern governments and billionaire philanthropists.

2) Evidence has massive political significance. The type of Evidence that is politically compelling is often unrepresentative. Our challenge, as a specialism, is to find better ways to articulate representative insights. That’s the most challenging and infuriating part. It’s why we need more than just bean counters.

3) If you can marry rigour with practicality, M&E is a quick way into the sector, to advance within it – and a great way to hit a technically fused glass ceiling. M&E people become influential in NGOs or they become consultants and researchers. They don’t run NGOs. If that’s your ultimate goal, use M&E to get in, then nudge sideways before you’re type cast. The most influential representatives of this sector form a sadly familiar little circle of people. Find yourself a decent sized organisation, ideally one you respect, and just get in. Once you’re inside you will have far greater opportunities to transition towards work that floats your boat. In the meantime, learn languages, get experience abroad and get some time either in a big or medium sized organisation where sideways moves are possible. But perhaps only do that if the most interesting jobs don’t work out or if it’ll get you closer to them.

I am happy to share more about me and how I’ve gotten here, and I’ll be around after for questions. But I hope you find some semblance of perspective or utility in what I’ve said. In return I only ask that you try to find a way to deliver meaningful work now within a system that allows for it in the future. Good luck.”

Career Advice, SOAS Style

Trying to breath life into complexity

The problem with complexity theory is that it’s complex. And abstract. And it tells us to consider that everything changes. Everything is complicated. There are multiple versions and perspectives of all things at all times. That no one thing operates in isolation from others. In such a way, it’s spot on. These are exactly the lessons I learned from RW Connell’s work on gender and masculinities in particular. The problem with systems thinking is that it’s hard to be systematic about viewing everything operating within systems. So I had a go at doing what all good former Organisational Development professionals should do: reshape other peoples’ work to create something new-ish. I hope it’s useful:

Put simply, everything is dynamic, complex, pluralistic and relational:

Dynamic: everything changes and is changing – when something appears static, that’s not an absence of influence, but a balance of antagonistic forces – it’s a result of a dynamic equilibrium

Complex: nothing is simple – the most seemingly obvious force may have highly sophisticated rationales, the most immediate motivation will most likely never be the only one; it may not even be the most important one

Pluralistic: every group of people will have a variety of perspectives and rationales; every situation will have multiple interpretations and perspectives; every concept comes in various forms; masculinities can be aggressive and protective, gentle and callous – people can be all of them, even in the same day

Relational: different factors interrelate, be that gender and power or relations between genders, everything is connected and influences – and is influenced by – other factors; past programmes, political contexts, reputations, expectations

Well, I’m glad to have added that to voluminous interpretations and guides varying from the short-sighted to the abstract beyond reality. So what’s the value in this? Well, it’s not a bad analytical lens to look at a lot of things. Contexts. Results. Relationships. If nothing else, I hope it provides a smidge of clarity. A platform to step more easily from, to help move from the broad concept of complexity and systems, to provide a few lenses to look situations with. It can be overwhelming to consider systems as webs: entities and connections, always moving and affecting each other. Perhaps start by looking at them one a time. Then bring them together because, after all, everything is DCPR. 

Trying to breath life into complexity

Accordions of Change and the Paradox of Pragmatism

I love pragmatism. As do I any self-fulfilling prophecy garnished it’s own self-congratulation. I especially like how it is lauded over naive idealism and overly theoretical concepts. Definitely time to get Kantian and mention the classically bastardised (by myself) “practice without theory is blind…theory without practice is impotent”. Perhaps I love pragmatism’s baseness because I am often told I think too much. Which is always an interesting point to make. What do people who make that comment think they are being perceived as? Well, perhaps they don’t. Right, back to it.

Pragmatism is making immediate decisions given short-term, accessible parameters. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value to it. But by nature, it is short-sighted. Purposefully. Which means it often works, in the parameters within which it has been considered. Short-term and known parameters. But a collection of pragmatic decisions does not a summer of strong decisions make, necessarily. I bring this up because a large number of people I know seem to greet this short-termism with glee over the perception of control and efficacy it gives them. Make a quick decision on limited information and judge it by its own self-defined parameters. Move on. Don’t think too much about it. It’s simple. It’s comforting.

So how to make this abstract waffle more concrete? I guess that my belated point is around maintaining a balance. Perhaps more an equilibrium. And that’s hard. But I think if I had any practical advice to give, it’s that broader, theoretical, strategic consideration need not be devoid of attachment to more immediate concerns. As the initial post says, I have told people that my job is to make the complex simple, but that’s trying to do so without removing the complexity. I know, incomprehensible. What I’m trying to say is that the simple is often informed by the complex and designed to, ideally, be flexible within changing contexts – often the level of complexity we’re comfortable to talk about. Holding both at the same time is aspirational.

In the most practical senses, I’ll give you an example. Theories of Change. At their best they are collaboratively considered doses of perspective that dare to dream that our hastily botched or beautifully considered plans may not go as they were…planned. They actively try to figure out why things may not go well as much as why they might. They establish what we don’t know. And that’s powerful. In principle it’s accepting the influence of various factors. In practice, it means we’re less likely to get blindsided by something we could have kept an eye on. Most of all, for me, it encourages us to take a broader perspective. But in their full complexity they struggle with resonance. In their simplicity, they struggle to create value other than making people feel comfortable they understand them. And then don’t value them.

So make multiple versions. Make it an accordion. In certain situations, stretch out the full complexity, in design, with others who will engage with it, or even just to know that you’ve thought it through yourself. But make a really simple, compressed version that is compatible with the former. And make it visibly clear how it connects to each other (in case you ever show the same person both). At their best, theories of change are the opening framework from which various outputs can be plucked. Yes, logframes, yes, learning/research agendas, even communication strategies. 

What are we really about, what are we trying to achieve. How are we trying to do that. Make that complex then clear. Then contextualise. Simple…no? No.

Accordions of Change and the Paradox of Pragmatism

There are 3sides to every story

I have often asked people why they want to write, and then why they want other people to read what they’ve written as they are often two very different motives. Usually the latter is the principle motivation. In truth, it is here too. Whilst I hope this helps to solidify and formalise random ponderings, I also hope that it is helpful. Having studied a bit of Organisational Development, I’ve seen how the smattering of leadership books etc. are like most UK Garage compilation albums – the same information presented in a different order. This blog may well be the same – that’s for you to judge. What I hope it is, is effectively a sadly hipster take on M&E and related questions of humanitarian programme quality. Put simply, it’s an unstructured and informal gathering of insights from various disciplines, roughly stitched together and presented with a sense of clarity that disguises its messy composition.

Let’s go back to aspirations. I hope it’s useful, yes. I hope it provides accessible, usable information that gives people something to work from and on. These posts and models aren’t the final answers to anything. They are hypotheses, only roughly tested if at all. Therefore please break them down and put them back together as you like. Test and adapt them even. Do as you wish. And when you come up with iterations and improvements, please let me know in the comments. Feedback’s a gift. Even if it isn’t wrapped nicely.

To the name, why 3sides? Well, 3 is the magic number. Yes it is. It’s the magic number. And yes, the title is a bastardisation of the phrase: there are two sides to every story. Saying that there are 3 sides is only a mild progression, but hopefully it orchestrates the point. Everything is complex, dynamic, pluralistic and relational. I’ll go into that more in a bit. The inference is complexity. A very banded-about word that is often used to provide fuzz and buzz. But the idea is not to paralyse with complexity, but to explore it in order to provide pragmatic ways forward. I have described my role as embracing complexity so others don’t have to. So, despite my linguistic failings, it seems that I like to be a translator. To take the disperse and abstract and to make it accessible.

A number of my heroes became so entitled as a result of their genius in doing so. Through people who took reality and made it fiction to make it more accessible such as Georgie Orwell. Or those that use the abstract to define the real – often poets of different denominations, from Wordsworth to the Streets. Or those who manage to find a way to take years of insight and communicate it in such a powerfully accessible way that it removes – for a moment – the privilege of certain levels of insight. I don’t need to look much further than Akala to find that. He seems to know full well that intelligence and formal education are often mutually exclusive. He finds a way to translate the language of the latter to reach those of us that still lack insight and perspective. In doing so, he is inclusive in his message and his method. And that brings me to those who have delivered me a large slap of perspective with regards to gender. Cynthia Enloe and Raewyn Connell stand out as those keen to engage, encourage and involve in order to share the incredible perspectives that they have garnered. So this is my real motivation, to be a mickey mouse version, in my own way, without any naive aspirations to be said in the same breath, but at least you know my motivations here.

And now that we’ve gotten fully tangential – that’s ultimately what this is all about. Perspective. For me, it is a synonym for wisdom. Seeing things from multiple angles. Seeking to understand complexity despite how challenging it is and how wrong we can be. Trying to get closer to insight by acknowledging our ignorance. Trying to remove ourselves to find some objectivity, yet not forgetting our role in the intricate and interconnected webs of influence. In doing so, it’s also about encouraging inclusion and accessibility. Trying to save people time and effort, but not in providing solutions or destinations, but hopefully fast-forwarding to stages perhaps. Providing platforms to critique or leap from. That bit’s up to you.

And the symbol at the top? Well, triangles are good. 3 lines where 2 points meet. A symbol of inter-connection. Of direction. A structure of strength. Circles are pretty good too, to be fair. A symbol of loops, repetition…sure, but also a cyclical form of connection and grouping. A flow and a reflow. Of perpetual motion. So in combination, I guess it reflects aspirations of progress, reflection and inclusion…largely through perspective. And pretentiousness. Above all else, pretentiousness. But don’t worry, the real posts wont be anything like as long as this. Thanks for sticking with it so far.

There are 3sides to every story