A. OrtizBy Alfredo Ortiz Aragón

My recently completed PhD action-research attempted to contribute to an area that is virtually absent in capacity-building literature: capacity-building methodology that is relevant and meaningful in supporting organizations working for social change in complex environments[1]. Essentially, I was looking for ways to develop methods and broader organizational strengthening approaches that took into account the complexity of real life social change situations that organizations in international development face[2].

My research generated some insights into how capacity-building methodology can help surface—via communicative interaction—the complexity of social change that organizations face.  Five relevant aspects of methodology emerged:

1)      How methodology engages with how and what we know, including the deep complexity that resides within each of us

2)      How intentional contrasting of diverse perspectives and worldviews supports learning

3)      How methodological redundancy is important for digging deep into organizational complexity

4)      How deep, coherent, complex storylines emerge via less-structured reflection

5)      How all methodological decisions enable some participant ideas and constrain others (Shaw, 2002, Stacey, 2007, Stacey et al., 2000), and thereby generate dynamics of inclusion and exclusion which affect change learning and change.  In other words, how all methodology enacts power relationships

This post is focused on the first and fifth of these methodological aspects (although they are all interrelated); Specifically, to what extent do capacity building (CB) process facilitators take into account the diverse ways people learn and express themselves—in workshops for example—and how does this affect (i.e. enable or constrain, include or exclude) participation that might engage with the deep complexity that resides within each of us?

To explore this question I share a story from a recent experience I had (July 2012, not related to my PhD cases) in a large three-day workshop (about 50 participants) I was co-facilitating in Cusco, Perú.  The workshop was focused on initiating a process to design a programmatic strategy for a Belgian NGO that funds and accompanies progressive NGOs and community organizations in Apurímac and Cusco in southern Perú. These organizations work primarily with communities negatively affected by mining.  The Belgian NGO had convened representatives from approximately ten “local partner” organizations (organizations that receive some funding from the NGO), as well as additional actors with important knowledge and experience in this region.  The workshop was to take a “rights based approach”[3] (e.g., see: Boesen and Marti, 2007: 9) to understanding development challenges and possibilities, in part to make sure that typically marginalized voices—particularly those of indigenous and peasant women—would be taken into consideration.

My co-facilitator Juan Carlos Giles and I were the lead facilitators as part of a team of five co-designers of the process, including the director of the Belgian NGOs Peruvian office (male), a technical specialist on environmental issues (male), and a Peruvian specialist on capacity building with women’s organizations in social movements (female). Each evening we met (the team of 4 or 5) to reflect on the day’s events and re-plan the following day. On the evening of the second day, while planning the third and final day, we discussed as a team how we were frustrated that participants were not really talking about substantive issues of gender-based violence and exclusion in the rural highlands of Cusco and Apurimac, in spite of the fact that these themes were clearly on the table as part of the WS agenda.  We agreed that we needed to open up a session the next morning to discuss “temas ausentes” (absent themes), in order to confront directly why we as a collective group were not discussing these important issues.  Methodologically we decided that we would ask participants to break into groups and design and perform sociodramas (skits) that exemplified the missing themes.

The design went according to plan, with the different groups preparing their sociodramas with apparently good energy the following morning.  Then, when the sociodramas were performed, something remarkable happened (as we noted in a later reflective facilitator session).  Each of the 6 or so groups performed very vivid and animated skits, enacting scenes of women trying to speak up and being silenced in public meetings, other women resisting and insisting on being heard, NGO representatives trying to carry out their projects in clumsy ways, women unsuccessfully or successfully negotiating participation in women’s solidarity groups with their husbands, and several difficult scenes of violence or insinuated sexual abuse.  Some participants who had previously been relatively quiet and unassuming came alive as actors, demonstrating complex behaviors, cultural codes and interactions that had not emerged in the workshop up to this point.  Even more interesting was that over half (we later estimated it to be about 2/3) of each skit was conducted in Qechua and not in Spanish, in spite of the fact that the entire workshop up to that point had been conducted in Spanish (and we had given no language instructions as part of the exercise).  Some skits even used Qechua and Spanish dialogue to dichotomize broader social problems that are often enacted between people of different economic and social classes, many of whom use Spanish and ignorance of Qechua as an instrument of power to reproduce the status quo.  After the sociodramas Juan Carlos and I opened up a reflection period that went deep into important “temas ausentes”, including some participants sharing difficult moments, with very emotional expressions.

I share this example to make a simple point.  We as workshop organizers had implicitly assumed that a workshop in Peru should be conducted in Spanish because all workshop participants spoke Spanish.  Indeed, Spanish is a common language for those whose first language might be Qechua, or English or Dutch, for example. We had further assumed that creative, reflective methods—e.g. drawings, co-construction of timelines and mind maps, reflective plenaries, etc.—would “speak” to the different participants learning styles and ways of knowing because they broke out to some degree from the “traditional” ways of conducting workshops that many were accustomed to.  But as the workshop space suddenly came alive after two days, in a language many of us could not understand, it became clear to me that some participants were able to express themselves more effectively from within the persona that emerges in their native tongues.  They were able to access and perform gestures, meanings, and behaviors that they had not done up to this point when speaking in Spanish.  Population-wide patterns of behavior (i.e. “societal” cultural behavior), including behaviors that actively constrain and exclude women, were not only placed on the table but were presented as evidence through live performance.  Certainly the sociodrama as a performative way of knowing contributed to this (see Chapter 6 of my dissertation for a detailed example), but language also clearly contributed as people found their voice, or at least a different voice, in Qechua.  The diversity present in this previously unheard voice fundamentally affected the overall workshop conversation, and ultimately the expression of strategic intentions of the Belgian NGO.

In my dissertation I theorized that extended epistemologies (e.g. CB methods that play to different people’s cultures, learning styles, and communication and engagement abilities and preferences) are capable of accessing diverse ways of knowing that are capable of shifting patterns of communicative interaction in organizations working in complex environments.  Now, upon further reflecting on the present example, I wish to further clarify my point:  For grappling with complexity—including the ways in which power relations enable and constrain the patterns of communicative interaction that emerge in different social settings—CB facilitators should seek extended epistemologies that help diverse actors give voice to their diverse embodied understandings of problematic social situations and opportunities.   That different “extended” epistemologies extend (i.e. “speak to”) to some people more than others is a common point made in adult education (e.g., see: Belenky et al., 1986, 1997, Gardner, 2009, Illeris, 2009, Merriam and Kim, 2008) and action research (e.g., Heron, 1999, Heron and Reason, 2008, Reason, 2006), albeit with no specific connection to complexity theory.  But it is particularly important in organizational capacity-building in complex environments, because complexity is experienced and revealed differently by different people with different experiences and ways of knowing.  Capacity building cannot help access the most relevant patterns of communicative interaction if it is not utilizing methods that target or serve the diverse ways of knowing of different actors.

As such, CB facilitators shouldn’t assume their methods speak to diverse ways of knowing and acting just because they are “participatory” and creative.  All methodology generates communication (participation) that enables or includes some and constrains or excludes others.  The question is, on balance (over a longer process), do our participatory CB methods adequately engage with the diversity that is present within a problematic social situation?  Complexity theory[4] tells us that this diversity is needed to shift dominant ways of seeing and acting in the world.  If this is the case, then CB facilitators need to critically reflect on the extent to which our methods are able to access and build on different people’s diverse intelligences and ways of knowing.

Alfredo Ortiz Aragón is a PhD candidate within the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team. His research investigates how can systemic methodology help strengthen organizational capacities for grappling with social change in complex environments. In other words, if social change is complex and contested, and not straightforward and controllable, what should be different about organizational capacity building?  How should capacity building be different in complex environments? 


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[1] Full dissertation can be downloaded here: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/44684

[2] See the following blog post for a full introduction to my thesis:  http://organizational-capacity.blogspot.com/2013/05/capacity-building-for-social-change-in.html

[3] “A rights-based approach to development is a framework that integrates the norms, principles, standards and goals of the international human rights system into the plans and processes of development. It is characterised by methods and activities that link the human rights system and its inherent notion of power and struggle with development. RBA is able to recognise poverty as injustice and include marginalisation, discrimination, and exploitation as central causes of poverty. In RBA poverty is never simply the fault of the individual, nor can its solution be purely personal. However, RBA also refuses simply to place the burden of poverty and injustice on abstract notions such as society or globalisation. Human rights claims always have a corresponding duty-bearer. A central dynamic of RBA is thus about identifying root causes of poverty, empowering rights-holders to claim their rights and enabling duty-bearers to meet their obligations” (Boesen and Marti, 2007: 9; can be accessed from: http://www.humanrights.dk/files/pdf/Publikationer/applying%20a%20rights%20based%20approach.pdf).

[4] See “Some learning theory” in the blog post “Posole Knowledge” for a short explanation on diversity in Complex responsive Processes (CRP)  theory: http://organizational-capacity.blogspot.com/2013/07/posole-knowledge-and-i-how-i-know-i.html