Learning visit or invasion?

Caroline Hartnell

‘I liked it because it wasn’t a straight in, straight out visit. We really got an idea of how people lived, and the whole village welcomed us.’
‘I was impressed that people in the village were happy to see people from the outside.’
‘We interrupted that village so much – was that right?’

These were some of the comments made by people following a visit to a women’s self-help group in an Indian village in September. The site visit was part of the annual Synergos Fellows meeting, and was far from the familiar horror stories of helicopter-borne donor invasions. But any site visit raises questions – about the value of the visit, expectations on both sides, intrusiveness, voyeurism – and how we should have handled the water and the tea that were offered! Caroline Hartnell and six others who went on the site visit talked over breakfast two days later – about the recent visit and about site visits more generally.

The site visit

On 9 September a group of around 28 Synergos Senior Fellows visited the monthly meeting of the Nari Network in Gram Panchayat Majrakhurd in Mahendergarh district in the state of Haryana, India. Since 2001, PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia), along with a local NGO Jan Sewa Kendra, has been working in Mahendergarh, and has supported formation of the Nari Network, a network of small village-level women’s groups.

The Synergos group met first with a large group of village people, men and women. This was followed by a discussion with the women’s group, at which many men were also present. After this we all went on a walk to look at the dam the village people were building.

What was the purpose of the visit?

What did participants feel was the purpose of the visit – or of site visits in general? ‘I think you do these visits to take people out of their own realities,’ says Ann Lamont. ‘A visit like this removes us from the rarefied boardrooms in which we work.’ David Winder of Synergos has a similar answer. The purpose of this particular visit, he says, was to ‘enable empathy’. ‘People who are concerned with rural development policy, social policy, design of projects get a sense of what the challenges are, of the reality on the ground.’

Kgotso Schoeman stresses that visits like this are not just about experiencing but also about learning. ‘I think fundamentally it’s about us learning how communities do things, appreciating the capacity that exists in those communities, and identifying the opportunities to work with them.’ Azeen Salimi, also of Synergos, who was involved in organizing the trip, agrees but stresses that the learning should not be just one way. ‘We intended the visit to be completely untypical of a donor’s visit,’ she says, ‘more interactive (smaller groups), mutually beneficial, and multi-dimensional. Two-way learning was a key objective, whether we met it or not.’

Making donors feel good?

Ann also mentions a second, and more contentious, objective, at least for donors, ‘to make them feel good about the money they have spent, so they can see that what they’re doing actually works’.

Steven Burkeman is not happy with this. ‘There’s something that makes me uneasy about the business of making donors feel good,’ he says. ‘Isn’t it more about donors understanding the impact of a grant that they’ve made or might be about to make?’ He refers to a saying about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable: ‘Isn’t it more about afflicting the comfortable, to some degree, given the nature of most boards, the social make-up of them?’

For Paula Johnson, the problem with this way of looking at things is that it’s ‘pretty much a one-way street – what can a donor learn to make his or her giving better? Ideally the visit becomes more the start of a communication process between donors and beneficiaries, where you learn about the priorities of the village and the people rather than just assessing an investment.’

Learning or showing?

Ann, speaking from her experience of running an NGO with major corporates funding it, is ‘not sure that our visits were set up around learning. Our visits were set up to show that the programme was working.’ In fact, she recalls, ‘if I took any of the big corporates around and things went wrong with their visit, we would have had a heart attack. So we will have a fieldworker in place for four days before the visit to make sure that everything that normally doesn’t work does work.’

At a rational level, Ann feels, donors can accept that everything won’t necessarily run like clockwork all the time. ‘But when they go into a community and what they’ve invested in seems to collapse badly on the day, at an emotional level there’s a risk to the investment.’

But Paula cautions against generalizing too much about donors’ expectations. ‘I’ve certainly been in situations like those you’re describing where donors really want to go in and prove the value of what they’re doing, but speaking as a donor I can say that some of the best grants that we’ve made are ones that have not met their anticipated outcomes at all yet significant learning has taken place.’

Preparing the community …

Is there any way around this understandable reluctance of communities to talk openly to donors? ‘We prepare people to talk about their needs, and about what went wrong and what they learned from that,’ says Amalia Fischer. ‘If we only show the good things, nobody’s going to believe us.’

And this seems to have been successful. On one visit, she remembers, ‘the women told us they had to stop their project for a while because of problems with drug dealers and violence. It was a donor from Amsterdam, and she didn’t know that women in Brazil had problems like this.’

Ann says they too prepare the community to talk about what goes wrong. But she feels that the bottom-line realities are hard to change. ‘The community’s primary objective is to keep the investment in the community – or to get more investment. So I think there’s a clear understanding on the part of everybody in the community of what’s OK to say and what’s not OK to say, and there’s a level of fear about jeopardizing this investment. On the donors’ side, they all go around and they do this little “What’s been working and what’s not been working?” But I still think that they want to see that their project’s ticking along as they may perceive it should be, not necessarily the realities.’

… and the donors

It’s not just the community that needs to be prepared. At Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Steven remembers, ‘we had two leaflets – one for the board and one for whoever we were visiting. This was sent in advance to the people we were visiting, and it actually said why we were going and what we were hoping to get out of the visit. Part of the purpose was to encourage people to be open with us, and to make it legitimate to talk about what didn’t work as well as what did work. It’s terribly difficult to do this because nobody wants to tell bad news to donors, but we were trying as far as we could to create those conditions. But we also tried to tell the board, subtly, how they ought to behave if they wanted to encourage people to be open with them and how to make themselves open to learning.’

Steven feels this is especially important in the context of the present focus on outcomes. ‘There is a culture in much philanthropy at the moment that focuses on logic models and the like – it pretends that there aren’t things beyond the project’s control which go wrong, that funding a project is like funding a chemical reaction in a sealed test-tube, with no external influences, no changes in the environment that can send things in a different direction. It’s a real challenge trying to create the circumstances in which funders can hear about what goes wrong in a way that people feel is not going to undermine their chances of getting further money.’

Project-based nature of site visits

According to Kgotso, the fact that so many visits are project-based is part of the problem. ‘We get on the bus, we go to a meeting place, we go to a project, we zoom out again.’

When a visit is project based, says Ann, ‘there’s a level of expectation about performance, and communities are sometimes nervous about this. I remember visiting a technology project. They had to operate this computer in front of x number of people. I promise you we have people who can operate everything fine, but on the day of the visit they couldn’t operate anything.’

We need to make our donors relate to issues in communities, says Kgotso, ‘because if they relate to a project they will want to see that the project is performing well, but they won’t have a sense of whether it is actually responding to problems in that community.’

What about the village people?

If it’s a donor visit, it seems to me, it may have its objectionable side but the village is potentially getting a grant. If the visit is simply a learning visit, it seems even more important to ask what the community will get out of it. Otherwise, isn’t there a danger that it becomes just a voyeuristic exercise? We walk through somebody else’s village, we look into people’s houses and see how they live, we take photographs …

‘I think it’s a real dilemma,’ agrees Steven. ‘I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Synergos gave us the opportunity to do the visit, because I think we have learned a lot, and we’re having this discussion now. On the other hand, I can’t say what the community got out of it. I can walk away and convince myself that because people were very gracious to us, people smiled a lot, there was a lot of laughter, that this was a totally welcome occasion for them. But who’s to say what some people might not have been thinking and expressed had we had a chance to engage at that sort of level?’

Paula also expressed some doubts: ‘I sensed on Saturday that they were proud, but we don’t know, so maybe there needs to be some kind of assessment after the visit.’

David has a more positive view, which he says is based on discussions he’s had with field workers after visits. ‘I think sometimes we tend to think of a visit as an imposition on the community, taking away their time, but I’ve found over the years that many communities appreciate a visit. The fact that outsiders are showing an interest in their community gives them pride in what they’ve achieved, and it’s a chance to interact with people from different cultures and to learn what’s happening in other parts of the world.’ Based on her own experience of talking to project staff before donor visits, Amalia agrees: ‘Always they say yes, we love it when people come and visit us and see what we are doing.’

Seeing Kgotso walking round the village with a large following of young men and boys around him might have dispelled all doubts. ‘I think I was the first person to be dragged into a house,’ he recalls, ‘and people wanted me to go in. I was literally taken in one house, I was taken to one bedroom, to the kitchen, people explained this is the kitchen and this is how we cook.’

Does the number of people make a difference?

We were a group of almost 30 people; we arrived in a bus and inevitably rather took over the village. Would it have made a difference if there had been fewer of us?

‘I tend to prefer smaller groups for visits, five or six people going to a community,’ says David. ‘It’s less of an invasion and you have much more chance to really dialogue and interact. It’s more difficult when you have a large busload of people arriving.’

Talking to the women’s group

It’s also inevitably quite difficult for a large busload of people to have a meaningful conversation with the village people. When it came to talking with the women’s group, an additional difficulty was the presence of men – village men and the men in our own party. At one moment the village men all left the hall and the doors were closed, but they crept in again, one by one, and at some points there were more men in the room than women. It was obvious that the women were holding back because the men were present.

But it was also clear that the women did want to talk to us, and were as curious about our lives as we were about theirs. We were asked questions like whether any of us belonged to women’s groups, and whether our husbands minded us going – all of which would have been much easier in a women-only group.

Men talking with men might also have been interesting, suggests Steven. ‘Think what a fascinating exchange we’d all have had afterwards if a small group of women met with a small group of women, and the same with the men meeting with men. Obviously we’d be led by them to a large extent, but if we had agreed beforehand some of the issues we wanted to bring up, it would then be very interesting to compare notes.’

‘I’ve been on visits where we’ve divided women and men,’ says David, ‘and it has been successful because the women feel more comfortable talking about reproductive health issues and family planning and so on if they’re only with women, they’re uncomfortable if men are present, and the men can address issues that males in the community are facing with regard to employment, agriculture, etc …’

Another barrier to communication was the translation. Usually, a translator translates exactly what each speaker says. In this case, particularly when the village people were talking, there might be a lively exchange and lots of laughter, translated to us by a single word. Whatever was going on, we were only marginally part of it.

A cultural interpreter?

Translation is far from the only practical thing to think about when preparing for a site visit. In fact, says David, ‘I think it’s important to go with somebody who really knows the community and who can act as a kind of cultural interpreter. They will make sure you arrange the visit at a time which is not going to be an imposition on the community. If you’re going to visit women in a village, don’t go at a time when they’re cooking or going out to the field but at a time when they are in a relatively restful period.’

Amalia says much the same. ‘We have to do the visits on Saturdays, because most of the women work outside. You have also to think about when they meet, and not go on a day when you have only one person in the same place.’

‘We didn’t do a good enough job of preparing people for the cultural norms,’ David admits.

Avoiding cultural banana skins

Many of these cultural norms relate to hospitality, such as the offering of refreshments. There was a painful moment during our site visit when we were talking to the village residents and a man appeared with a tray of glasses of water, and we all knew that most of us wouldn’t feel safe to drink it. Most people refused, some pointing to the bottles of water in their bags. Some accepted and then left it, and of course some of the untouched water got spilt. With the infinite wisdom of hindsight, one can see that all this could have been avoided if the community had been told in advance that we all get ill very easily and therefore keep to bottled water.

Another example is an invitation inside someone’s home. Just as we were on our way back to the bus, we were invited to have tea with the head of the Panchayat. We all trooped into the courtyard of her house, rugs were spread out, we sat down, the tea urn and other things started arriving. A few minutes later, we got up and left, realizing it was all going to take a long time. We felt very bad about this, especially as we couldn’t explain and apologise as we would normally have done.

‘One of the guidelines is that you just have to go with the flow when you go to a community,’ says David. ‘Things are not going to happen as planned, you have to be prepared for it to go on longer than you intended. It’s rude to curtail a visit and run away because then people might think you didn’t enjoy yourselves. We should have briefed people properly and insisted they stayed at the tea when it had been prepared.’ Logistical plans need to be flexible enough to accommodate spontaneous, unplanned events such as this.

David himself went back and had tea with the woman who prepared it and then ran back to catch the bus. She brought out her granddaughter and her grandson, ‘and she was so appreciative’.

A final thought

‘If I could just make one more final observation,’ says David, ‘it is that any visit is only going to give you a snapshot view of a community. I’ve lived in one community for three months, and only after a few months do you start to know what’s happening in terms of social dynamics, power structure and so on. So we have to accept that it’s going to be superficial. On the other hand, those impressions are going to be very meaningful for people who don’t usually get an opportunity to go to communities.’

But, we all agreed, we want to be able to make the visits in as sensitive a way as possible – while not losing the spontaneity.

Alliance would like to thank the following, on whose contributions this article is based:
Steven Burkeman Independent Consultant
Amalia Fischer Executive Coordinator, Angela Borba Fund for Women
Paula Johnson Senior Fellow, The Philanthropic Initiative
Ann Lamont Independent Consultant
Kgotso Schoeman Chief Executive, Kagiso Trust Charitable Development Trust
David Winder Co-Director, Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

Comment Ingrid Srinath
While all donor site visits run the risk of degenerating into feel-good exercises that objectify communities, the reality is they are still the best means for donors to gain real insights into the context and impact of the work they’re supporting. I recall vividly my experience visiting a CRY-supported programme that works with children of commercial sex workers in a Kolkata slum. Watching kids freely contradict the NGO personnel who were presenting their work brought to life the claims of children’s participation in programme decision-making in a manner no Powerpoint presentation or monitoring report had. That said, the need for donor sensitization prior to the visit and active mediation through it cannot be overstated.

I didn’t go to Mahendergarh, but the group’s reactions did two things for me. They reinforced the importance of managing expectations on all sides as well as the value of donors getting a first-hand feel for ground reality. No report, presentation, seminar or film could have communicated the depth of poverty, patriarchy and feudalism of Indian society in the 21st century with as much authenticity and impact.

Ingrid Srinath is CEO of CRY.

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