Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Oldtimer Power in Social Action

An observant reader of this blog pointed out the irony in me working for an organization called Young Power in Social Action, given my recent achievement of official middle-age status. I believe his exact words were “Young Power in Social Action? Who are you kidding?” It’s a fair comment – a slightly nasty one, but fair, nonetheless. And it did start me thinking about the organization that I’m supporting. Given that I’ve yet to dedicate a blog entry to YPSA and the work I was recruited to perform here, it seems like a good time to introduce both to all of you.

YPSA was created in Sitakund in 1985 in response to the United Nations’ declaration of that year as the International Youth Year. Initially known as “Young Power”, YPSA began its life as a club for youths seeking to make a change in their communities. The early years of the club were spent in developing sports and cultural programs for youth in the area, but the organization came of age with the arrival of a major cyclone in 1991. Participating in the relief and rehabilitation work that followed in the wake of the devastation proved to be a galvanizing moment for the club and spurred it on to seek greater and more long-term projects. A change in status was required in order to better pursue these goals, so the club transformed into a full-time development organization in 1992, renaming itself as “Young Power in Social Action”. Two of the founding members of the club, Arifur Rahman and Mahabubur Rahman (not related), have remained with the organization throughout its existence and now occupy the two top operational posts of Chief Executive Officer and Director of Field Operations, respectively.

The seventeen years that have passed since YPSA came into being as a development organization have seen it undergo substantial growth both in terms of the projects undertaken and the size of the organization. Currently, YPSA counts among its personnel over 600 full-time and 300 part-time staff, making it one of the largest NGOs (or non-governmental organizations) in Bangladesh. Beyond the staff members, YPSA is able to call on the services of over 500 volunteers trained by the organization. With its head office now located in Chittagong, YPSA also maintains field offices in eleven communities throughout the south-eastern part of the country. It estimates that the total population of disadvantaged and vulnerable people served by the organization is approximately five million people.

In order to reach this number of people, the projects and programs undertaken by YPSA are understandably diverse in their scope. Too numerous to list here, the thirty projects range from separate HIV/AIDS prevention programs for street-based sex workers, youth and garment workers to a program dedicated to the prevention of human trafficking to a pair of projects focused on disaster management and the reduction of risk from such events. One of the highest profile projects in the YPSA organization is the advocacy group that lobbies for more rights for those involved in the ship-breaking industry. Chittagong is one of global centres for this industry, which involves the dismantling of cargo ships that have completed their years of service and the selling of the scrap metal and other parts that result from their demolition. Conditions for the workers are deplorable and dangerous, and the attempt to improve these has earned YPSA much recognition internationally and an equal amount of enmity domestically from the local ship-breaking companies. More can found on this program in YPSA’s website dedicated to the issue: . And YPSA's own website can be found at

With all of these projects running simultaneously, it can be difficult to determine the impact that they are having on the communities they serve. Funding for the projects often comes from a number of different international donors, and a common (and reasonable) requirement is for a project to report to its donor regularly on the progress made. These international donors tend to have their own favoured mechanism for reporting, and as a result, the projects within YPSA employ a myriad of structures to satisfy their respective donors. Though accepted as a necessary element of working with donors, the impact of these diverse reporting schemes has been to individualize the monitoring and evaluation of the projects to a certain extent, and a common framework for such activities is missing from YPSA. Without a shared system for monitoring and evaluation, it’s as if the projects are all speaking their own language, and the management of YPSA sensed that this babel of project reporting could result in the projects failing to deliver to their fullest capacity. A common Monitoring & Evaluation (or M&E) system for the projects was determined to be the best way to rectify this, an internal system that would operate as a complement to the reporting requirements of the donors.

This is where I come in. As the M&E Adviser for YPSA, my main responsibility is to design and implement an M&E system for all of the programs and projects over the course of the next two years. Or rather, my responsibility is to work with YPSA to help them develop the tools and skill needed to do this for themselves. Understanding that my placement is only for two years, the expectation of YPSA and VSO is that I will help individuals within YPSA learn how to construct the M&E system and to keep it running after I leave in 2011. To that end, YPSA has already assigned an individual within the organization to act as my counterpart during this time, someone who already occupies the position of M&E specialist for the programs and projects. The expectation is that the amount of work entailed in the implementation and continuation of an internal M&E system will dictate the creation of a team dedicated to this pursuit.

How are we going to construct this M&E system? As a starting point, a format for the system must be selected. Based on the stated requirements of YPSA for this reporting structure, I decided that an Outcome Mapping system would best suit their needs. Briefly, Outcome Mapping focuses on the changes in behaviour that an organization is able to contribute to in its boundary partners that lead to a greater change overall in the community. Boundary partners are those individuals and organizations with whom YPSA has direct contact and is able to effect an influence on their behaviour. The Outcome Mapping system is designed to examine how a project or program can develop its strategies and internal organizational actions to move the boundary partners toward behaviours that it would like to see exhibited by these partners. The actual reporting on these activities is done through a series of journals that can be reviewed on a quarterly basis or however often the organization deems it necessary. Management can review these journals with an eye to assess whether the project or program is achieving its stated goals and the changes that may be needed if it is falling short.

Still with me? I know this isn’t exactly riveting stuff. With the format for the M&E system selected and confirmed by YPSA, I modified a facilitators’ guide for Outcome Mapping that had been developed by the International Development and Research Centre in Ottawa. The guide sets out a series of workshops to help the members of a project team develop a structure for their Outcome Mapping M&E. My expectation is that this guide will be used by the members of the YPSA M&E team whenever they want to implement an M&E system for a new or existing project or program. The next step will be to take this facilitators’ guide for a test drive by running a pilot workshop with one of the projects within YPSA. This is where the fun begins, as we get to see how well the plan translates into actual practice. I expect there will be some tweaks needed to make the workshops, er, work, so once the pilot is complete, I’ll sit down with my counterpart to review what went well and what flopped and make any adjustments needed before moving on to the next project. Along the way, we hope to develop M&E expertise in other YPSA personnel, so that they can also start to run workshops for the remaining projects and programs.

So, that’s the plan as it stands right now. But if my experience in Nigeria has taught me anything, it’s that a plan is like a garbage truck – everyone agrees that it’s needed, but no one wants to follow it. So, while a plan is good to have, I expect that things will change over the course of the two years that I’m here. And that’s part of what makes this position so interesting. Should anyone have any suggestions that you think would be helpful as I work through this, please feel free to post a comment or send me an email. I can’t promise regular updates on the blog about the M&E work, since I think most people would find it eye-crossingly dull, but I will post anything that strikes me as worth sharing. Thanks, everyone, for your continued support!


cochrane said...

Great article...except perhaps for your unduly negative characterization of the "observant reader". I, for one, find his (or her) comments witty and insightful.

Thanks for the background on the organization. :-)


Anonymous said...

You have unmasked a most significant human compulsion [or less judgmentally, "a human desire or driver"]: the need to bring order into chaos.

Social anthropologists claim that if a person were marooned on an island [a la Crusoe], he/she would set up a schedule of activity and action as a way to stave off starvation and ultimate obliteration by the forces of nature. Many of us reading that last statement would nod in agreement, even intimating "of course, that is the obvious natural thing to do".

Creating order is the first step to human survival, whereas slaughter [obliterating (killing) another life (animal/vegetable) for food] is so much more "natural" to the rest of the fauna and flora of the world. But order is by its very nature a human construct imposed on nature; it is not natural. Think about it.

The natural world is de facto chaos. There is no order, whatever one's quasi religious belief in scientific principles and so called natural order -- never mind any notion of creationism [yes, to engage in scientific pursuits is to embrace a belief system -- an assumption we often fail to acknowledge or question].

In the beginning was [and still is] chaos. The Enlightenment and co-relative deistic notions of the well formed clock presupposing the wise clock maker [aka God] is a "nice to have" but not a necessary reality. Newtonian laws of physics, like Euclidian axioms of geometry, are all nice ideas derived by humans in their encounter with nature.

We "discover" these laws and then claim they are inherently part of nature. We impose these things onto nature and these beliefs help us get through the night when chaos prevails to the utmost.

The notion of discovery is itself a fascinating topic: what differentiates a scientific discovery from miracles of a more "superstitious era"? The hermeneutics of discovery need to be explored from a more critical perspective. Even more importantly, we need to examine the notion of certitude, which is at the root of our science-oriented Zeitgeist.

There is a certain smugness and arrogance about certitude, especially when it is ascertained through verifiable and measurable methods [note that I didn't use the term "methodologies"]. Why is a number more certain than a word? why is a definition more reliable than a description? Is there such a thing as a "definition" whereby we define the existential reality and identify the essence of something? or is this just Platonism subsumed into a book most famously written by Dr Johnson?

While I personally am not prepared to revert to superstition in order to explain the world around me, I am prepared to raise an eyebrow, at least occasionally, when encountering the certitude of human construct posed as irrefutable discovery. We should always question assumptions, especially our own.

Those of us who live in cities are the least connected to the world out there. Scientists who work in labs are even rarer for their disconnect from nature, despite their claims to the contrary. Is the pursuit of sub-atomic particles in a lab a natural occurrence or a human idea? what's the difference, if any?

As urbanites, we live in imposed order, ranging from street grids to sewers that take the shit away, and as we automatically assume that "that's the way it is", we more easily jump to the conclusion that "that's the way it should/must be". Wherever the shit goes, we really don't care in an everyday way, so long as it doesn't pile up in our backyards. If it does pile up, then something "must" be done about it.

Glen, what you tell us in this chapter is the story of organic [chaotic] growth from an innovative idea [the seed] to a system monitoring outcome. Actually, the work you are doing to set up a system for monitoring outcomes is a predisposition to the next step -- which is setting out expectations.

There is an inchoate notion of what the expectations might/could be, but the group ain't there yet. So if we set up a system to monitor what we already do, we can then more easily establish objectives and goals, with essential KPIs, that then can tell us when and how we achieved what we set out to do in the first place. We are hereby establishing the terms and parameters of success.

One can almost ask: did we not know what success looked like in the first place? It is an intriguing question that all of us in business [talk about imposed systems] often do not think about because we have bought into the system of (a) setting out objectives and goal and (b)establishing criteria to measure achievement, in order to (c)define clearly whether and when we have succeeded [success, unfortunately, being synonymous with what we can measure].

Again, I personally see nothing wrong with any of this; I am not criticizing -- I am observing, possibly at the 10,000 foot level. The pattern is what intrigues me.

Your admission in the end that the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry -- as in Nigeria -- raises an even more intriguing issue. We "Westerners" live in a patterned reality that is different at core from the patterned reality of other cultures, be it Bengali or Nigerian or Chinese or whatever. We are imbued in Cartesian thinking that arose in the Enlightenment and came to full flourish through scientific thinking. We measure, we calculate, we define, we circumscribe, we objectify.

While I refrain from any reference to cultural imperialism where the outsider imposes on the insider, I do wonder if there is an indigenous "system" to "measure" or "define" success that achieves the same objectives but does not act in the same way. Your source, for instance, comes from Ottawa. Now there is an uptight and anal bureaucratic world, if there ever was one. Does what comes out of Ottawa fit in Chittagong?

I am not asking a micro question intended to get you to stop in your tracks. I applaud you for the work you are doing. But you are in a position so different from the rest of us who read your blog. You can actually see and feel potential disconnect; whereas we can only theorize about it.

You may consider keeping a journal in which you identify those areas of disparity. It is in the ellipsis, the gap, the disconnect and brokenness [as Heidegger would say] that we discover existential reality. What is is not what we define or measure but what emerges and what we see [phenomenology] in what is not [chaos].

I envy you for being on the edge of the creative abyss.