I spent last week in Ethiopia meeting with project partners involved with two Dutch MFSII consortia, the Dutch WASH Alliance and Connect4Change. Akvo is a partner in both groups and I want to share my observations about the current communication situation, and what we did to help improve things.
Videoing team members and then playing back these interviews on the big screen had a real impact. Here we play back a video of Zemede Abede, a WASH Alliance Ethiopia member being interviewed the same morning.
What was immediately apparent is that the new alliance structures back in the Netherlands are not well understood amongst local field partners. Some of the local organisations aren’t sure who to communicate with and how – and the communication process takes too long. At a practical level it meant that several of the projects we visited had barely started. Crucial local planning – such as workshops to agree indicators, baseline surveys pegged to these indicators and training workshops – has in some cases been delayed. As each step is delayed, everything falls back.
MFSII has led to the formation of new consortia at the support partner level – and for field teams locally there’s little awareness of who is leading what and how they should interact. This is the downside of such reform, of course, and something it’s my job to help fix.
We saw places where the urgent need to get things fixed was apparent. This non-functioning water trench, intended for cattle, is located at one such spot – an AMREF borehole rehabilitation project in Awash in Ethiopia’s Afar region.
Good communication between everyone can solve this. Some of the trouble is connected to email, and a culture where a week’s delay in replying back and forth in each direction slows everything down. Of course internet speeds in Ethiopia are still pretty poor and we’re not going to change the style and methods of communication overnight.
Anyway it’s my job to be part of the solution to this problem. Akvo is designed to make it easy to get the programmes online, so the partners in the North and South, together, can show what is planned, show where each project is on a map and add updates via PC or mobile phone, including photo and video updates. I’m hoping it can make a difference.
Here’s what we did during the visit to bring this into focus:
1. We established direct contact and briefed local partners on what Akvo is designed to do. I hope this will kick-start the process of taking activity online (the proof will be in the follow-on behaviour, of course).
2. We brought several programmes online. I entered this data as a draft into Akvo.org in the Netherlands and then tweaked it online with the people involved in Ethiopia, where we switched them to “live” so the partners can start doing Akvo RSR updates. They’re a first cut and the descriptions will evolve and be refined, but we had to start somewhere.
3. We filmed numerous short (3 minute) videos, profiling individuals involved. People loved being filmed – the attention! We showed people the result immediately. People seeing themselves on video made a difference – they became more aware that people would be watching from outside and it was exciting for them to see… it’s not something they’d experienced before. I think videos make projects feel more real, and build trust with the people involved. It’s much closer to being there and makes it easier for everyone to begin to understand who is who. One other interesting thing – although people could see the video clip play from my laptop hard drive, they wanted to see me play it on YouTube (even if it took forever to download…). The “I’m on the internet!” factor was definitely at play here.
4. We got local partners registered as Akvo RSR users and showed them how to add updates. Where relevant we added the videos as Akvo RSR project updates.
Of course, the issue is how to deal with such problems at scale. Do we need to visit every programme team in order to get projects online? That would be expensive and add further delays. The challenge for every partner in such consortia is how to kickstart a more dynamic process of communication, structured around project pages online. Also, this isn’t just about communication from the South. I think we should do video interviews with people in the steering groups back in the Netherlands, so field partners can begin to understand who is who and how they connect.
All of us need to commit to improving communication flow in this kind of network. Because if we do this well we can provide well-focused development aid that leads to real results. Business as usual – or business as before – won’t do. We must do better.
Luuk Diphoorn is project officer at Akvo, based in Amsterdam and Nairobi.