Knowing how much I don’t know

Knowing how much I don’t know

As you may have heard or seen, the SIA website was hacked yesterday. I got a dreaded email from Google warning me that the site would temporarily be marked as hacked until I got it cleared up. Yikes! And so two hours passed in the blink of an eye as I tried to figure out what I needed to do and how to do it…

I’m pretty tech-savvy and there are still moments with the website where I feel like I’m in the deep-end trying to stay above water. I told this to my husband and he reassured me that it’s a common feeling and that this kind of experience pushes us to grow, to expand beyond our comfort zone.

Things I don't know. Prized speakers are transported by motorbike (boda-boda) to play praise music by generator in the evening.

Things I don’t know: Prized speakers are transported by motorbike (boda-boda) to play praise music by generator in the evening.

Of course, I agree. It’s just that I usually prefer to at least have my nose above water as I’m pushing, learning, growing, and experiencing new things. Sometimes with websites I’m not even sure if there is a bottom to the pool. In other words, yesterday I had one of those moments when I realize just how much I really don’t know or understand.

And I’ve learned that the best response to this kind of moment – when the vastness of the world and the limitation of my expertise is broadcast in front of me – is to turn to those who know and be grateful for them.

It’s true with the internet (we paid a nominal fee to get the website cleaned and verified by professionals), with electricians (don’t ask how long we worked at installing a new fixture before surrendering), and also with working in Africa.

SIA Small Business Fund local coordinator Nalu Prossy (Uganda) shares her knowledge with the other coordinators at our conference in Uganda.

SIA Small Business Fund local coordinator Nalu Prossy (Uganda) shares her knowledge with the other coordinators at our conference in Uganda.

Partnering with people in different countries, with different cultures, is a good opportunity to practice surrender and call in the professionals. This, in essence, was the goal of the SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator’s Conference we held in Uganda this summer. Each is implementing the same program while applying their intimate knowledge of the situation and customs in their own community. The conference was a chance for the six coordinators to share what they do to adapt the program to their community and to learn from each other.

It was pretty easy for me to admit when I started this job that I didn’t know the first thing about training someone to run a small business in rural Malawi. The coordinators know though. They know not to distribute the grants right before school fees are due. They know that illiterate parents can ask their children to help them fill out the forms. They know that buying livestock is a way to invest savings. And I know that there’s even more that they know that I don’t know. You know?

Seven years after starting my work with SIA, my nose is beginning to emerge above water – so to speak – especially after two trips to Africa. And, every day, I celebrate with gratitude our local coordinators who really know what they’re doing.

P.S. The website is all clean and safe now! Thanks for your patience!

Godfrey Matovu (Uganda) and Canaan Gondwe (Malawi) share with a women's group in Kasozi Village, Uganda. Each coordinator has different expertise to share with groups, me, and the other coordinators.

Godfrey Matovu (Uganda) and Canaan Gondwe (Malawi) share with a women’s group in Kasozi Village, Uganda. Each coordinator has different expertise to share with groups, me, and the other coordinators.

Shifting Perspectives

Small Business Fund training in Uganda.

Small Business Fund training workshop in Uganda.

My work with Spirit in Action is not only about “making the world a better place” and running the daily operations of an organization, but also about struggling to understand how each of my interactions can bring more peace and equality into the world. This means constantly striving to put myself in another person’s shoes.

That might sound like either a lofty goal, or a throwaway promise. Yet, if I can keep this goal in the forefront of my mind, I am reminded to honor the dignity of each person I work with; to listen to peoples’ needs and desires; to trust them to send in grant proposals that they believe will be successful; to honor our partners’ service and respect their time.

Shifting My Perspective

How do I begin to imagine putting myself into our partners’ shoes? On her blog Good Intentions are Not Enough, Saundra Schimmelpfennig asks us, “to imagine being on the receiving end of aid, to try to think of aid from the recipient side rather than the donor side.” In this post, she introduces the Listening Project, which “interviews aid recipients, local government officials, religious leaders, and community organizations to find out their perspectives on international aid.” Through their fascinating testimonies, I can begin to shift my perspective.

Beyond just listening, Saundra also explores some of the social costs that are associated with receiving aid. For example: “Social stigma – Imagine how you would feel having your neighbors or coworkers see you using food stamps or waiting in line at the local food pantry.” Click here to read the rest of this thought-provoking list.

Being Accountable to our Beneficiaries

How can we put this new perspective into practice? On her blog How Matters, Jennifer Lenter asked her colleagues about how they would change “the system” to make foreign assistance better.

Perusing through the answers, a response from C.D. in Swaziland particularly struck me: “Let the intended beneficiaries of development take the driving seat from identifying their only priority developmental issues, to planning, designing, implementing and monitoring. Let the beneficiaries define the priorities and let the donors be accountable to beneficiaries for quality, appropriateness or adequacy of the assistance delivered.”

Part of SIA’s mission is to empower individuals and grassroots organizations to choose their own grant project and decide what kind of small micro-enterprise they believe will be successful.

More than this, C.D. calls on donors to be accountable to the beneficiaries. Del Anderson, our founder, often wrote about everyone being channels of God’s love in the world. “God has made us as God’s instruments and co-creators, so as we take our responsibility to be God’s channels, we are empowered and the fruit of the Spirit is brought forth through us.”

We, at SIA, have a great responsibility to strive to better understand the people we are serving and consider the many ways they are serving us. Let’s shift our perspective. Each person has something to give. What is the gift you receive from SIA partners?

Related Posts:

The benefits of risk-taking

A friend of SIA with 50 years experience employed on the executive and administrative sides of church, parachurch and humanitarian foundations, muses on the value of risk, accountability, and the occasional failure in investing in people and projects world-wide:

When I asked Tanya about on-the-ground accountability for SIA grant funds in the places where people have the least resources, I was thinking of several experiences in our foundation work which looked like failures at the time.

Providing education for girls

Here is one example.  We work with a foundation that provides school fees and scholarships in developing nations primarily for the children of people we met while working for another foundation.  We’d become aware that the local leaders we worked with, in every instance, chose to stay in their countries and serve their people rather than migrating to Western Europe or the USA.  In some cases, by staying and working as teachers, nurses, social workers, pastors, and community organizers, they did not generate enough income to keep their own children in school (in many developing nations, parents have to pay for school tuition, uniforms, and other fees beginning in elementary school).

Due to cultural exigencies, if a parent has, say, two boys and two girls, and there is enough money to educate only two children, it is the boys who go to school.  (This isn’t what it looks like to American eyes — in their cultures, where there is no such thing as retirement income or Social Security and Medicare, it is the sons who must care for their parents in old age.  Sons have priority on education because of their responsibility to provide for their own wives and children, and then also their parents.  Girls become part of their husband’s family, and help care for her husband’s parents.)

Girls with education bring more resources and opportunities to their families, and more choices open for them as well. Our foundation’s educational grants specify that they are to be used for the education of the female children of the family, and no other purpose.

Building relationships built on trust

Most of the families we’ve assisted with school fees are people we’ve known face to face, worked with in their own communities, and greatly respected for their vision for improving opportunities for people in their country.  In the vast majority of instances, the school fees, college and university scholarships, and graduate school fees have been used for the purposes for which we sent them.  However, occasionally funds are “misused.”

One family had six children, four girls and two boys.  The boys had been in school from age seven.  The girls had gone sporadically, whenever there was enough money. This was just the sort of family we wanted to work with, to be sure the girls had an education, and therefore, many more choices and opportunities when they became adults. We sent the funds for one school term for all four girls.

When we checked in several months later, inquiring how the girls were doing in school, we received no answer.  Several more letters and emails were not answered.  Finally we checked with a mutual friend in their village.  It happened that just as the school funds arrived, the wife/mother of the family fell critically ill and needed surgery.  The husband/father chose to use the education funds we’d sent to pay for his wife’s surgery, very likely saving her life.  He was so embarrassed and ashamed that he had “failed us” that he wouldn’t respond to our contacts.

Of course, when we learned what had happened, we immediately wrote and told him that we understood completely, and that in this case, he had made the right choice to use the funds to save his wife.  THEN we asked the question, “How can we work together to keep your girls in school?”

Valuable lessons for all

Over time, the man felt so empowered by our continuing trust in him, he and his family redoubled their efforts to earn income from their garden. With a little help from our foundation, he paid the balance he owed for the girls’ school fees, and from there on managed to pay more than half of the fees needed to keep his daughters in school.

What at first looked like a failure and loss to the foundation, and felt like a personal failure to the man whose daughters we helped, turned out to be a double blessing — the man had the funds at hand when his wife needed surgery for survival, AND the family was motivated and empowered to become even more self-sufficient.  The building of self-confidence, self-esteem, and trust in God’s providence was the great blessing that came out of what looked like a bad mistake.

In our foundation experiences, such misuse of designated funds has happened several times (though remarkably rarely,) with various projects and individuals.  Not always, but most often by staying in very close supportive contact with the individuals involved, the situation can become a very valuable learning experience — for everyone!

So, our view, based on long experience, is that it is okay to take a risk now and then, and perfectly okay to “fail” now and then — more often than not, a much greater good emerges from what is learned, both by the individuals involved, and by the foundation staff and board.

Choosing Grant Recipients

A friend recently asked me about how Spirit in Action chooses our grant recipients. I first launched into an account about how we work with Small Business Fund Coordinators who help choose people in their community and how the Board votes on proposals we receive from partners and new contacts. After listening patiently to that explanation, my friend clarified that she was really wondering about the psychology of the grant-making progress.

How do we decide whom we support? This is quite a different question from how you choose proposals; it is a question about the core values of the organization. It was a thoughtful question, one that I am still thinking about weeks later. Of course, these are just my thoughts, and perhaps, other SIA Board members would have different ideas.

I think the simple part of the answer goes back to last week’s post. We support people we trust. And we actively work on building trust with people we may support. Del Anderson strongly believed in developing a working relationship with people before supporting them financially. This relationship is built through sending many letters (before email this could be a very slow process!), providing relevant self-help information, and sharing experiences, ideas, and prayers. Part of the process that I still employ faithfully is listening to the needs and ideas of the people who write me letters and responding with encouragement, information and ideas. *

We are upfront about wanting to develop relationships with people. I really like this letter that Marsha Johnson (the previous SIA Administrator) wrote to share about our philosophy with a new contact:

“We welcome new relationships like with you, and hope to get to know one another, pray together, and follow God’s guidance in how we can work together in service to those in need in your community and in our world. Our desire is to serve God and humankind, without encouraging dependency on us, but by working TOGETHER, developing ways that people can grow their own food, start small business when they have a saleable skill, and become increasingly self-sufficient and growing in their faith in God as well.”

We don’t just work in one area or one country, which means that we depend on recommendations from our international network when we are considering a proposal or building a new relationship. One of our strongest sets of connections is Camps Farthest Out International (CFOI), an organization that provides leadership training and organizes non-denominational Christian retreats promoting peace. Many of the people we engage with are also involved with CFOI and the camps create a built-in accountability system, especially since people traveling for CFOI are often able to meet other SIA partners and check in on their projects. Right now, most of SIA’s relationships are built on email and letter correspondence and recommendations from CFOI. I hope that someday soon I’ll be able to meet some of our international partners face-to-face and further deepen our connection!

Dennis Kiprop and Jacob Lipandasi

Dennis Kiprop (Kenya) and Jacob Lipandasi (DRC) meet to exchange ideas about improving their communities.

*This is perfectly parallel with the findings of the Listening Project, which found that international aid recipients want more long-term relationships with aid organizations and crave more “listening in open-ended” ways. Read the very interesting summary.

Building Trust

At SIA we say we believe in building trusting relationships with our international partners. So what does that really mean? I read this blog post recently about trust by Ben Ramalingam on his blog Aid on the Edge of Reason about international development and aid. [Thank you to Jennifer Lenter for bringing this post to my attention!]

Ben has some interesting points about the many aspects of trust – how trust is an evolving process, relies on equal exchange, and has many difference ingredients. Ongoing correspondence and a strong relationship with the people he supported were very important for Del and these practices continue to be important criteria as the SIA Board evaluates grant applications.

Ultimately, for me, it is a matter of faith and seeing the God-light in others that I am able to depend on our partners to serve their communities with integrity. Trust is a very important part of what we do and I love seeing how building trust and developing a strong relationship leads to confidence and good works.


Rethinking Trust (and a Doggy Footnote)

August 19, 2010

For one reason or another, I have been thinking about trust this week. Trust is regularly cited as a critical factor in effective aid organizations, is seen as the essential for partnerships, and creating it is seen as a primary task for aid leadership.

But all too often trust is mentioned as if it can simply be designed, imposed and managed. As a concept, trust is both over-used and poorly understood.

From the viewpoint of aid organizations as complex social processes, and drawing on Chris Rogers’Informal Coalitions approach, trust has three specific features which are overlooked or ignored.

First, trust is a property of relations and interactions. Second, trust is multidimensional. Third, trust is emergent. It’s worth looking at each of these in turn.

1. Trust as a property of relations and interactions

“…people’s sense of trust is embodied – or not – in the unscripted detail of each and every interaction that they have with one another.  It is personally and socially constructed – both consciously and subconsciously – in these moments that people come together.  As such, it reflects participants’ past history of interactions, their future hopes and expectations about this and/or other important relationships, and the current immediacy of the exchange. At the same time, the emerging outcomes of this ongoing process shift the ways in which ‘the past’ is recalled, ‘the future’ is constructed and the present is lived – all in the here and now.”

2. Trust is multidimensional:

“…we might believe that someone is being genuine and truthful when they say that they intend to do something, and yet still not trust them to do it because we don’t think that they have the necessary competence.

The dimensions include:

  • character (perceived integrity and trustworthiness)…
  • community (whether the person is recognized as being ‘one of us’, with shared perspectives, common interests and sense of identity)
  • communication (perceived openness, honesty and straightforwardness);
  • confidentiality (sense that it is ‘safe’ to share confidences) – “I believe that I can be open with you, without fear of you taking advantage of me or breaching that confidence.”
  • credibility (whether or not the ‘story’ makes sense and is believable in it’s own right) – “I believe that your ‘story’ (proposition, strategy, system etc) is credible and makes sense in its own right.”
  • capability (perceived knowledge, skills and abilities in relevant areas) –“I believe that you have the necessary capacity and competence to do what is needed in this situation.”
  • context (whether the patterns of taken-for-granted cultural assumptions are tending to channel behaviour in ways that enhance or undermine trust) – “I believe that the organizational culture and climate fosters an environment of trust.”
  • commitments (dependability in keeping agreements and promises) – “I believe that I can depend on you to do what you say you will do.”

3. Trust is Emergent

Complexity science has long been used to understand issues of trust and cooperation. In his now-classic work, noted complexity thinker Robert Axelrod showed how trust can emerge even in situations where there are self-interested actors with no central authority. More generally,

“People derive their sense of trust from the detail of the actions, interactions and transactions that comprise everyday life in the organization. The sense they make of their world, including the feeling of trust (or mistrust) that this evokes, emerges from this ongoing interactional process.  Also, the more that a particular ‘sense’ of trust is ‘taken up’ by others, through the diverse interplay of conversations across an organization (or fragments of it), the more generalized it becomes. It is then more likely to be taken up in similar ways by those same people in future – and, potentially, by others with whom they interact… It is the self-organizing process of ‘shared’ meaning-making, through which patterns of assumptions emerge and become taken-for-granted over time. These patterns create expectancy and tend to channel ongoing sensemaking, imperceptibly, down familiar ‘pathways’.  Since this patterning process is self-organizing, it means that trust cannot be ‘designed and built’ by managers, as part of a structured ‘culture change programme’. However, a major influence on this ongoing sensemaking and action-taking is people’s observation of the behaviours of those in formal leadership positions – throughout the organization.”

These different properties of trust may be essential to understand if we are serious about furthering aid efforts. For example, in aid reform processes, trust is repeatedly highlighted as one of the enduring challenges facing progress. On the development side, the Paris Declaration advocates for harmonisation between donors and mutual accountability with national governments; on the humanitarian side, the Cluster approach seeks to coordinate international relief efforts by bring the NGOs together in UN-led, sector-specific networks. Both approaches have been stymied by, among other things, a lack of trust between diverse actors.

The central take-away from the above should be that trust is not some box to be ticked in order to achieve aid success. Trust takes time, effort, presence, engagement, commitment and humility. Trust means putting a human face on overtly technical endeavours. Trust means starting something without necessarily knowing how it is going to end. Creating the space for trust in aid may mean re-casting aid as being primarily about relationships, as Ros Eyben and others have argued, and seeing what might emerge as a result.

Scary, eh?

FOOTNOTE: All of this makes the recent revelation in the Economist all the more intriguing. New research seems to indicate that just having a dog around can boost human cooperation levels—potentially altering well known game theory results.

“….The researchers explored how the presence of an animal altered players’ behaviour in a game known as the prisoner’s dilemma…Having a dog around made volunteers 30% less likely to snitch than those who played without one.”

So, should the next Paris Declaration meeting have canine observers?

People gather in prayer groups in Uganda

Praying together and sharing ideas helps build trust between group members.

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