Last Friday we met Gerson Abesamis and the team at Habi Education Lab to exchange ideas and understand more about their work. A design agency in the field of education who support organisations and companies to better design, implement and monitor their work. But during the conversation something he said stuck when we asked about how they keep their design thinking and approach “fresh” (yes, i admit it, i did actually use that word). (I paraphrase) “We don’t like to call ourselves consultants, it brings preconceptions, that we are coming with our own ideas. We don’t. In every engagement we undertake we come with an open mind to learn.” People often say that they listen and are open, but i suspect it is a difficult skill few have mastered. Nothing demonstrated its practical application though as clearly as the organisation we worked with this week, both in their way of working and how it challenged our profiling.
Quidan Kaisahan empowers local communities to reduce poverty and create a safe environment for children by improving the community mechanisms and increase engagement with local government. But they don’t do it by coming in with a specific project or a large amount of material to distribute. Nor do they implement standalone projects which are not relevant to the rest of their work.
Rather they start by engaging and strengthening the community and local government framework so that they can better communicate with each other. Through the “self-help” groups or people’s organisations, that are naturally clustered around what they call sectors (e.g. Farmers, Fisherfolk, Women etc) QK learns what their priorities are and then works with them to achieve it. Through training and facilitation they support groups and the villages or – barangays – in which they live, to gain the skills and knowledge to better assess and express what they want. They then strengthen the civilian representation in local government mechanisms so that they can influence how decisions are taken and money is spent.
At the same time they ensure that all elements of their goals are integrated. People’s Organisations might require that all their members ensure their children are sent to school; schools run drop out reduction programmes and with the support of QK ensure students at risk of drop out have the material means to attend; local industries (in Negros it is sugar cane production) are educated not to hire children; and finally livelihood and micro-loan programmes are run to support farmers to increase their income, thus allowing them to send their children to school.
Integrated actions are not new, but it takes time. This is especially true in community led integrated action. And there is failure. Not everything that is attempted works. What works somewhere doesn’t always work elsewhere. But each time there is learning, evaluating and re-attempting. Exactly how we do things anywhere in the world, be it in your home, with your children, in your project.
Many projects we have both experienced have not had that “time”, in part because donors do not give it, and because we don’t demand it of ourselves in the pursuit of meeting the expectations for outputs and/or results. This regularly leads to failure because we did not fundamentally understand the nuances of the communities, or what was important to them at that time. All we understood was that there was a ticking clock and that a certain objective needed to be reached no matter what. We’re sorry to say that for those of you that give, in many of those organisations you give to, this approach is the norm. The worst though is that they don’t learn from that failure. At a project level very little has changed for over a decade in this regard.
QK’s approach challenged even our own methodology for determining “what is a good organisation”, so much so we were having to review it each evening before continuing the next day. Our structure and questioning had been written from our experiences of being an “outside” organisation implementing a time bound project. QK was part of the family using their skills and contacts to facilitate the achievement of an initiative designed and implemented by the community themselves. We thought our worldly experience gave us a balanced approach but obviously it didn’t. But this was precisely what we came here to the Philippines to do. To be challenged.
When we reached out to QK during our research the thing that we both remembered was Imelda’s strong statement, “if the money or what the donor wants to do doesn’t align with our vision, values and programmes then we won’t take the money”. For a local organisation this principle for many might sound almost suicidal, but it is exactly this that enables them to keep focussed on doing what the community wants. This strength in their principles and values, was evident in the loyalty of the staff, stakeholders and beneficiaries that we spoke to. At each level there was a belief in the commitment of QK to be with them in the long run and not sell out. Something that many INGOs might want to consider.
Our thanks to Quidan Kaisahan for hosting and teaching us many things that will be useful for our future!