Changing perspectives as opportunities for learning – 3 months in Vientiane

November 01, 2011 | BLOGadmin | SDC Experiences |


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By Adrian Gnägi

Adrian picture for sdclanManuel Flury recently published a post on changing perspectives as opportunities for learning. When Manuel and I went for overseas postings in the middle of 2011, we decided to continue writing posts for sdclan. We wanted to document how the change of work context affects our way of understanding things. I have written several posts since moving to Laos. They all related to my former work situation: the post on the political economy of result terminologies was inspired by a course on impact monitoring I attended back in July, the post I wrote with dlgn colleagues on the “learning project” methodology reflected on our joint capitalization work on donor support for sustainable municipal finances during the past 2 years, and the post written with Bertha Camacho in August reflected on experiences with e-discussion campaigns we made in February.

The truth is I felt, and I still feel, not at ease writing about my new work context. Changing perspectives may be good for learning. But learning implies, as Manuel used to word it, “de-freeze”. Changing perspectives leads to “de-freeze”, to loss of security. That is how I feel right now: angry, confused, and insecure.

I was convinced that experience based reflective practice is most needed at the operational level. This is where good practice should change people’s living conditions and organizations’ way of functioning. This direct relevance of learning for impact was the main reason why I had applied for my current function. But reality here is different. My colleagues sit behind their computers and write documents: credit proposals, end of phase reports, planning platforms, country strategies. Or they read documents: concept notes, approach papers, project documents, phase reviews, annual reports, management responses, sector strategies, logframes, result frameworks. In fact, their main job is reading documents and transforming them into new documents. When we met a month ago in Luang Prabang for the East Asia Division regional seminar, we asked program officers  how much time they spend on the production of PCM documents. And we asked how much they think they should spend . Some of the results:

  • On average, Swiss and national program officers in EAD field offices spend more than 50% of their real working time on the production of PCM documents.
  • This is 150% of what they think it should be in order for them to do all tasks mentioned in their ToR in comparable quality.
  • Several NPOs spend more than 80% of their time on SDC bureaucracy. Given the fact that there is email, telephones and team meetings for them, too, they probably do nothing else than paper work.
  • One single colleague present in Luang Prabang spends less than 30% of his working time on credit proposals et al. He also was the only one thinking that nothing needs to change for him to do all the tasks in his job description well. Whenever I see something he has been involved in, I am amazed by its quality.

Two days ago we received a circular note on the additional 0.5 ODA/GDP funds approved by Parliament. Maya Tissafi and Michel Mordasini used sophistically reflected, politically highly correct formulations to explain that SDC is having problems to move those funds, and that reputation issues in view of the new bill to Parliament might arise if this situation does not change. “Please take all measures to enable the payments planned for 2011 and to report on early results. This is of course not a message for relaxing on the quality of the projects’ formulation and implementation”. The 0.5 ODA/GDP message means roughly 20% additional funds not prepared for in any project pipeline. That means something like 20+% more work. And just before that, Reo II with all the new instruments. And just before that…, and besides that…

How is this additional work load absorbed? Were our people going idle before, waiting for something to do to come along? Here in Vientiane, I see and I hear every day how the additional work load is absorbed: colleagues do not go to the field, colleagues do not exchange in workshops with partners, colleagues do not participate in networks, colleagues complain no analytical thinking is done. Whenever I try to lobby for learning or exchange opportunities, I get the same answer: “I have no time, I’m busy writing PCM documents. Please help me with the paper work”. Good development work here means well written credit proposals. Michel, my colleague here in the office, just said: “It is difficult to imagine what development work was like 30 years ago. What did colleagues do all day long when there were no computers to sit behind?”

After 3 months with changed perspective, I feel angry and confused. I do feel there is a reputation issue out there. Tax payers and Parliament back home are expecting results. We are primarily producing paper. Some very bold action is needed to get this straight.


Comments to“Changing perspectives as opportunities for learning – 3 months in Vientiane”

  1. Ernst Bolliger says:

    Dear Adrian
    Thank you for the courage to name your feelings at the crossroad of experience between headquarters and field. And for the freshness in your writing style. You presented a perfect explanation for a phenomenon I am observing these last months, linked to the Reo II, the decentralization from headquarters to the cooperation offices.
    It is about a recurring pattern: We (in our role as consultants) are confronted with requests for consultancies. At a first glimpse it looks like we are asked to step in. We produce a proposal. We are asked to refine it. After some time, we get aware, that the cooperation office insists in (short) tendering the consultancy. If we are lucky, we get the mandate and the time invested in the first proposal is balanced by paid working days during the consultancy.
    What I read in your blog: The cooperation offices are in a double difficult situation: The shift of a lot of responsibilities of the programme management from headquarters to the field asks additional time, skills and capacities from COOF staffs. Additional 20% of budget volume asks the same. How to overcome this bottleneck? There is not sufficient time to prepare tenders and ToR (terms of reference). As a consequence consultants are invited to contribute to this step.
    That’s fine with me – I like to share ideas and experience. The only problem I have at times with this approach appears in the moment I get aware that we cannot bill the working days performed before a contract is signed.
    I am open to discuss procedures that fit the interests of both parties.


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