This post is meant to highlight, remind and role model certain behaviour, attitudes and reflection I would encourage my fellow colleagues to continue to act upon to shape the culture of our work in Ghana. It is also meant to foster a better understanding to the new volunteers who will be arriving and working with us in less than one month. I would also like to personally remind that the issue of comfort speaks to both mental satisfaction and physical health and safety.
This weekend my colleagues and I at Engineers Without Borders convened for the West Africa Retreat, otherwise known as the WAR. The WAR is considered a time to reconnect with colleagues and use them to help push ourselves out of our comfort zone and develop intentional skills and attitudes. Activities are not at all related to war like events, but instead include formal sessions related to our work or personal growth, feedback, reflection and even poetry slamming.
One of the most interesting sessions hosted was around the EWB culture of connecting to ‘Dorothy’. I have mentioned the term Dorothy at other times in this blog and as a reminder as to who Dorothy is:
she is our most important stakeholder, our informant, our evaluator and we are accountable to her when we do our work. We regularly consult her to make strategic decisions and we share her stories with others. She simplifies the complexity of our work and reminds us that development is about people. Dorothy is not a specific individual, but a representation of a complex category of people. Dorothy is a lot of different people and means something different to everyone working within EWB. Despite this subjectivity, Dorothy is meant to represent a person working each day and struggling against the odds to get out of poverty.
EWB has a reputation for understanding Dorothy and using that knowledge to shape our actions, decisions and influence strategy for higher quality development work. Traditionally, EWB understands Dorothy because we spend time with her – maybe we live with a Dorothy, or visit her every week and ask her opinion about matters when decisions need to be made. Differently than many other development organizations, we are excited, interested and involved in her life and do not see her as simply someone who lives in poverty and deserves simple charitable donations to lift her out of poverty. EWB is an organization that I am proud of because of this innovative lens to developing a broken system. We are not saddened by Dorothy, but empowered by her to provide higher quality results.
The majority, if not all of the African Programs Staff at EWB have lived in the village alongside a community of ‘Dorothys’ and worked with partner organizations who are striving to directly improve the lives or system that affects her. For instance, since December I have been living in a village where my neighbours and community would be classified as a type of Dorothy. The Ministry of Food and Agriculture office where I work directly engages with the community to provide important services to Dorothy.
Before I moved to the village, I had the opportunity to travel and conduct research around Dorothy’s opinion and perspective on the problems she faces and solutions she thinks would be appropriate. I then took that knowledge to my Team and we are now using the research to shape our future strategy and influence other decision makers.
Many of the African Program Staff currently working in Ghana acknowledge that there has been a shift in the way we do work in Ghana. Just two years ago the majority of staffs were out in remote rural areas working and living with local families, but today 80% of the staffs are in big cities and or regional capitols living independently. Even those staffs, including myself, who live in a village are still close to a regional capitol and not in a more remote area. There are several factors as to why this has become the case – the type of work and influence we are doing, the experiences already had by staff etc.– and the way it is shaping the culture in the organizations is evident.
The session held at the WAR successfully flushed out thoughts and feelings about specific cultural changes and the benefits and consequences resulting from them. This is useful knowledge needed to decide how we want to shape the future culture of our work overseas in Ghana for when new volunteers arrive in the next month. Our actions, attitudes, words, living context, working situation etc., will impact the way the new volunteers continue to connect to Dorothy and remain living healthy and productive lives overseas.
A major question asked during the session was: How can we balance our own comfort with our experiential learning about poverty? The objective to answering this question was to begin brainstorming a reflection and sharing to each other of what we are proud of and want to push forward and how this relates to what we are uncomfortable about intended for ideas spurring normative change. Common themes or answers include:
Despite intentions and values of having a bottom line being Dorothy, African Programs staffs feel guilty and consider it a strong driver in lifestyle decisions. We need to push people to feel outside of that emotion, accept decisions people make and push them to make decisions that are correct for them. One way to do this would be to begin explicitly discussing what works and iterate on them.
That it is important to highlight important and positive experiences throughout someone’s placement overseas and the intention of why certain decisions are made. For instance, why someone may choose to live in a village versus the city. One important way to share that information in an interesting and meaningful way is through story telling.
Although we work for a charitable organization it is still important that we invest in ourselves. Because we spend a lot of time with Dorothy and work for her, feelings of guilt and service often come up. We are trying to push people to personally develop their own skills and ambitions and truly acknowledge that doing this will ultimately help better serve Dorothy, as opposed to debilitating and de-motivating feelings of judgement etc.
Since we live and work in a complex sector sometimes understanding Dorothy does not seem relevant for our job, however what needs to be acknowledged is that we all have different definitions of Dorothy.
Lastly, things are not polarised – Comfort versus struggle. There is a time where living in the village becomes very comfortable. Living in the village is not necessarily less comfortable and more of a struggle then living in a city. Remembering that and remembering why doing both is very important (sometimes one is more important than the other) depending on your current learning and working situation. What needs to happen and not be forgotten is to continue to get outside of your comfort zone for learning. That could imply visiting old family, friends, doing something completely alone. Finding new experiences to help you continue to learn is critical.