Changing perspectives as opportunities for learning – First learning experiences working in a new context
Haven’t we experienced it many times? Discovering new aspects while looking at things from a different angle? Colleagues ask us to review a text, we explain our children what we do in the office, we hold workshops outside of our offices, we meet colleagues in the cafeteria and hold meetings standing around filing cabinets, we discover new issues while jogging or taking a shower, we prepare a negotiation by arguing from the others’ position, we design a learning event in analogy with industrial car production, we think “out of the box”.
I am about to experience the change of my work context in three ways: (1) from working on methods and processes of learning and knowledge sharing to working on solutions to problems of food insecurity; (2) from working in a development agency to working in an Embassy; (3) from working (and living) in a European capital city to working (and living) in an African metropolis. Let me share with you two of my first learning experiences.
Changing context I – from Berne, Ausserholligen in the centre of Europe to Addis Ababa in the Ethiopian Highlands
I am sitting in the narrow meeting room and library of the Swiss Embassy in Addis Ababa. Documents are spread over the table and deal with issues of land tenure, extension services, agricultural productivity, food aid and trade of seeds — all aspects of the larger Food Security Agenda. Knowledge management toolkits, institutional learning strategies and organisational development handbooks are left behind. African policy initiatives to strengthen small farmers are my new field of professional activity.
The room is rarely used and the books in the dusty shelves tell stories about the interests of former ambassadors in the history of Ethiopia or about the touristic attractiveness of Switzerland. In front of the small one-storey office building construction workers have put up prefabricated office buildings. I carry my few documents, my laptop and my stationery across the ward into the new office, adequately equipped with grey and blue furniture, the same one I was used to in Berne.
In front of the Embassy compound runs the new six-lane Ring Road. Along this busy road, life has been established in its various forms: street hawkers offer their products on sheets of brown paper or colourful cloths: fruit, flowers, batteries, matchboxes. Shoeshiners have put up their wooden cases and small stools for their customers. The “blue donkeys” – blue and white painted mini-buses – stop and let passengers dismount or climb the crowded vehicles. Mothers with their small children sit on the sidewalk holding their hands and begging for a few coins. A couple of years ago, the Swiss Embassy lost a big part of its compound to the construction of this road. Formerly being placed in a quiet and neat neighbourhood, the Embassy finds itself alongside a busy nerve of a still exploding capital city.
Life in Addis Ababa, in front of the Embassy, contrasts drastically with the life I encountered during the last years in the city and home town of Berne. My daily work remains still an abstract one. I deal with written and electronic documents about problems of food-insecure people and communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and about how the international community thinks about overcoming them. Increasingly I find stories about people’s livelihoods and their own survival strategies. I communicate with colleagues sitting in far away places via the internet and soon I will participate in conferences in the many Hiltons, Sheratons and Intercontinentals. However, leaving the office compound in Addis Ababa I experience life realities the many documents tell about. I talk about the urgencies of the previous day with the driver of the old taxi who brings me to a small restaurant for a quick lunch. I grab some few coins in my pockets for the lady sitting just in front of the Embassy gate and greet her quickly. I look at the fruit seller and his few avocados nicely presented on a sheet of paper, wondering how much he might sell today. I watch the urban dwellers hiking a bus to travel home after work, spending 10% or even more of their wage for transport. I enter the small Starbuck like restaurant and greet the numerous waiters that are supposed to serve the few guests. How do they all cope with the food prices that skyrocketed almost 50% during the last 12 months? Food security gets a real face just outside of the office. Learning from these life stories is a privilege and an obligation.
Changing office II – from the SDC office to the Embassy
The opening of two SDC programmes in Addis Ababa – Humanitarian Aid in Ethiopia and Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa – coincides with the will of the Swiss Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring the different services under one roof and to integrate SDC’s activities fully into the Swiss foreign policy set-up. Following this principle, the Embassy provides new office space within its premises, equipment and services. My colleague and me, we carry the title of “Councillor Development and Humanitarian Aid” and we are part of the Embassy team. Merging two formerly completely separated worlds – there the diplomats and here the “coopérants” (or vice versa!) – seems to be a matter of mere practicalities.
What at a first glance seems obvious emerges to be more differentiated and complicated on second sight. The term “working in the interest of Switzerland” provides the umbrella to merged (or “integrated”) policies and strategies. “Coherence” stands for the common logic. In practice, however, the term “interest” turns out to be imprecise and “coherence” is not substantiated. In March 2011, around 25 collaborators of three Swiss Federal Ministries met in Kenya. Their task was to sketch out the corner stones of a future Regional Programme Horn of Africa. There is no dispute about the importance of integrating humanitarian, developmental and political action. Informally, however, in the quiet environment of the hotel, heated disputes are pursued as to what extent e.g. migration related interventions in Yemen, demining action in Somalia, emergency water supply in Somalia or long-term policy action related to land tenure law reforms are justified to be part of such a regional programme that follows a “whole of the (Swiss) government approach”. The kind of “coherence” that should guide the action remains misty.
In my new working context within the world of diplomacy, “integration” and “coherence” are put forward prematurely, ignoring the existing particularities of the humanitarian, development and diplomatic mandates and, first and foremost, the obligation to reconcile the differences, to hold an overall political debate, both among Swiss players and with partners. Having shared my experiences with my SDC colleagues, we still carry the same concern: alleviating poverty does not necessarily and in every aspect converge with Swiss interests, as long as they do not give equal importance to a world without poverty and inequality. The perspectives of fighting absolute poverty and of protecting equally legitimate Swiss interests do not “coincide” per se. On the contrary! Promoting societal change towards socially (more) just and ecologically viable economic development in disadvantaged regions of the world – the rationale of the development mandate – conflicts in many instances with Swiss domestic interests e.g. in securing (agricultural) livelihoods in mountain areas. AH, a former SDC country director and head of the policy division insisted on it in a recent “Crossroads of Knowledge” event (SDC IntraWeb access only, in german): “Coherence” is the result of a battle of arguments, of debating openly conflicting objectives, of confronting the different perspectives, of learning from these different points of view.
Working in a new, “integrated” work context provides the opportunity for us as SDC collaborators to assume responsibility for the development mandate and to learn from the political perspectives. In the same way the “diplomats” need to look through development lenses and to include the “interests” for a globally just society into “defending” and working for Swiss interests. In Addis Ababa I enjoy such openness and interest in the “battle of arguments” as AH told us to pursue. Let us continue this “fight for coherence” from our different perspectives!
Post Scriptum: What “learning” means to the Learning & Networking Team of SDC:
- Learning individuals change how they understand and interpret reality that surrounds them.
- Learning groups develop shared belief structures through interaction among group members.
- Learning organizations incorporate experiences and new insights in organizational skills, procedures and cultures.
- Learning partnerships (between organizations) constitute common ground to meet successfully the challenges the partners are facing jointly.
See the Webpage of the Learning & Networking Team of SDC for further information.