This was my second annual meeting and a fourth formal meeting with the TALearn associates in the last three years. The annual meeting organised in Rio from 11-14 November, 2015 provided a further opportunity to build bridges with practitioners, researchers and donor/grant makers. The interactions of three sub-communities within the overarching theme of TALearn community, during these four days, opened up space for mutual enrichment through conversations, sharing of ideas, experiences and varying perspectives and an opportunity to appreciate each other’s positions, perspectives and differences as well.
Learning drives all the three communities! That was an interesting learning for me. However, as I mulled over these experiences through the new relationships that I have built, a few insights on triangular learning needs and their intersections, foreshadowed by my own practitioner’s bias are penned here. The key question that I asked was – does learning drive these communities and can the learning needs intersect each other? How is learning located within each one’s context and realities?
The reflections expressed here are not referring to any particular event or personality or institution.
Practitioners: Practitioners grapple with the challenges that confront communities on an everyday basis across the continents. Any change in global policy, donor policy, state policy, financial market upheaval, or climate change affects communities almost instantly. The world of practitioners is a real world of shifting sands, dynamic as well as challenging. Everything that happens in the world affects the practitioner’s world where the real people live in real time, and these communities and people are not mere numbers or news, but ‘people who matter’ to us. Such real people’s real needs are experienced by the practitioners and are challenged to address them irrespective of them being donor’s priority or not. The various types of marginalisation that communities experience cannot be thematically and vertically segregated as many academicians, donors or researchers do, as it is the same household or community that experiences them simultaneously. Malnutrition, safe drinking water, sanitation, access to wages and education are intricately linked to illness and health challenges. Besides, success in addressing them is linked to the political environment and the functioning of the public systems including the health care system and their sense of accountability. Hence, the deprivations of various kinds – illness, hunger, deprivation, discrimination against women, children, adolescent, the aged or persons with disability and so on, – exist in the same community or in the same households, though very frequently the accountability researchers or donors verticalise it as accountability for food and nutrition, water or sanitation or health, without seeing the intersectionality between these themes. The community and household within community is the point of intersection for all the development challenges and programmes, which the practitioner encounters on a daily basis.
The learning needs of practitioners are driven by some key questions such as – what better practice can make a difference for the community, what are the new tools and knowledge that can sharpen the edge of practice. Often the practitioners are also victims of the hegemony of knowledge and development idioms of donors and researchers – they have to shift from being activists to research assistants, community facilitators, knowledge partners etc.
The donor community: The world looks vastly different from a helicopter as compared to the outlook of a pedestrian or a trekker. The global donors, by and large, try to look at world from a far removed-from-the-real world perspective. From a distance, the world of poverty and marginalisation look similar if not the same. The problems of hunger, thirst, malnutrition, conflict, power hierarchies within community too appear to be similar. The abstract mind then logically rushes to give “global solutions” to complex development problems, providing a different justification /reason in each era and a jargon to articulate that reason such as lack of governance and accountability, lack of transparency and so on. However, in the complex system which the world is composed of, every issue is determined by and embedded in local socio-political realities, which end up being abstracted, simplified and homogenised from above. The reality is only complete with a ‘pedestrian’ perspective where such problems are contexualised and embedded. The donor’s world sometimes hooks on to the simplified versions of the solution without understanding the complexity which is part of the problem.
The donor community is driven by the hunger for efficienct, result-oriented investment. It demands SMART objectives, quick results, often looking for technological solutions for complicated problems, in pursuit of a magical pill as workable solution. The strategies and foci of the donor communities change, far more rapidly than the shifting sands which shake communities. There is a simplified version of the reality and a magical understanding of solutions. Donor community is well informed of various practices and has an acute clarity on their mission and tasks. Many of the donor professionals are up-to-date with the changing jargons, phraseology, and appropriate political language and articulation. Most of them are very well intentioned and want to work for a better world, though, yet times are far removed from the actual messy world. The desire that this change may be expedited by use of technology, new tools, new knowledge obviously is a key factor, among others, that drives the learning needs of the donor community.
Globally, the donor community makes use of research data to inform their strategies and perspectives. However, what kind of research informs them and what kind of information moves and shifts their strategies? It is intriguing sometimes to know, if this transition is driven by reality based and relevant data or is it a ‘data’ driven shift without questioning the politics behind data generation and knowledge making
Research Community: Some have described researchers as ‘forensic experts’ adept in conducting post-mortem of the reality with a desire to fore-cast the future! Such reports do pose themselves as the new knowledge, not necessarily adding anything new to the existing knowledge. With the expertise they are associated, research community is wanted by both – the practitioners as well as the donors. The former, want a legitimization of their work, and the latter, scientific information on the reality or a scientific view of the reality or evidence based information. Among all the three communities, researchers have the best of articulation, frameworks, perspectives, language, skills and tools, which also –yet times- given rise to the illusion that you have the best of solution to the problems of the world. There are very few researchers who dare to test out their findings, recommendations or the solutions they think they have.
The research community is keen to keep themselves abreast with the current happenings in all the fields which they intersect, including that of practitioners and of donors. They strive to learn about new practices, new experiments as and strike a happy cord with the practitioners as all the investigations, random control trials, cross-section studies etc are happening at the cutting edge of practice, the field of poverty and hunger, the esteemed laboratory of research.
Meeting different learning needs – a challenging task of TALearn: Meeting different learning needs is not easy. Despite having different world views, what one could observe was that each of the three communities, was genuinely interested in learning new things and learning from each other. TALearn provided a fantastic ‘micro-cosm’ drawn from the best of practitioners, best of researchers and best of donors, representing almost 21 nationalities. It was good to recognise that each of the communities is contextualized differently and is driven by each one’s own learning needs, which may be similar but not the same. There are a number of meeting points between the different communities and a genuine recognition of learning from each other. It is important to protect this space for solidarity. As a community of learners, of course, there were moments of giggle, aha!, and also moments of raising eye-brows, moments of laughter and of silence. The ‘peer –learning’ was a best way to provide for everyone’s participation and technical inputs from each of the communities was very enriching. The learning space was a great thing to happen.
While the journey of learning moves on; we recognised that the final destination that all aimed at philosophically at least, is the same – a just, equitable and sustainable world. However, as we carry different world views, we also recognise that the paths of unfolding this vision may be divergent at times, sometimes simple, and at times simplistic. The challenge remains to each one of the learners – how flexible can/will we be, to move out of our own boxes, how adaptable will we be to unlearn or to drop convenient learning and to accept the truth that reality is far more complex and the best solutions that we offer may be short lived, just like a meteor.
I realise – learning is a very humbling exercise.
(E. Premdas Pinto from the Global COPASAH Secretariat, participated in the TALearn workshop organised by Transparency Accountability Initiative in Rio from November 11-14, 2015. He has been active member of the sub-group on ‘Social Movements and Learning’ of the TALearn).