Reflecting nature in project design and implementation

Reflecting nature in project design and implementation

TransConflict is pleased to present a two-part paper by the Centre for Conflict Management and Transformation from Zimbabwe, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation, exploring how the design and implementation of peacebuilding projects should reflect nature.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By the Centre for Conflict Management and Transformation

Development work all over the world is plagued by two main challenges, that of ensuring the sustainability of a project beyond the funding life span, and transferring ownership of a project from the implementing agency to the communities with whom the project is being carried out.  While working in the area of peace building in Zimbabwe, the Centre for Conflict Management and Transformation (CCMT) has struggled with these same challenges. This paper describes the reflection and thinking that resulted in the organisation developing a new approach to its project design and implementation in response to the challenges of sustainability and ownership. This new approach saw CCMT offering conflict intervention services to communities and implementing community conflict interventions only in response to community requests. The learning that emerged from the work inspired CCMT to reflect not only on the organisation’s own work but on project design and implementation for development work in general. The description of this approach, which CCMT has named ‘The Eye’, may seem rather idyllic, this is due to the fact that the paper does not dwell on the step by step details of project implementation, but seeks to capture the reflective thinking that inspired the approach.

Early work with Community Conflict Management Associations

CCMT supported the formation and operation of ten urban Community Conflict Management Associations (CCMA’s) over a period of six years. Each association was made up of a group of between 15 – 25 volunteers who lived in an urban locality and were involved in various activities in their community. During the project life span, each group received incremental training and mentoring in mediation and dialogue facilitation from CCMT. The associations became a resource to their communities providing family mediations and later on convening dialogues on service provision issues that were causing conflicts within their neighbourhoods. Among these conflicts were those arising from erratic water and electricity supply, poor school administration standards and the poor state of roads. The dialogues convened by the associations brought together community stakeholders that were relevant to the issues; these included local authorities, parastatal representatives and school authorities.

The Conflict Management Associations enjoyed relative success, with each association breaking new ground through the constructive resolution of community conflicts. However, it became increasingly clear that sustainability beyond the funding life span would be difficult as not many activities took place without financial support from CCMT. Despite CCMT’s attempts to get the associations to fundraise, stand on their own and continue the much needed work they were doing, the majority of the association members felt the need to be compensated for their time and costs incurred coordinating association activities. This expectation gave CCMT food for thought as this was not an unreasonable aspiration considering the economic hardships being experienced by the majority of Zimbabweans including the association members. It was very clear that the service being provided to the community by the associations was needed, but was it important enough for the groups to feel moved to do this work just for their community?

Several questions emerged. Firstly, what was the level of relevance of the project to the association members and the communities they worked with? The association members had to weigh up their own individual needs against community needs. Human nature dictates that before an individual embarks on a project, there must be something in it for him/her and that something, be it emotional or material, will serve as motivation.  So how important was this conflict transformation work to the association members? What immediate emotional or material benefit could be derived from this work? The associations were dealing with community conflicts that arose around service delivery issues. Working through these issues contributed to the building of a better community that would be realised through the small but significant steps their work achieved. But realistically, this ‘better community’ was in the future and in order to be inspired by a vision of the future, one needed to see past the present reality, to be a visionary – a gift granted to few.

Further reflection revealed that it was unrealistic to expect that the association members could continue to provide their service to the community relying on resource support from a community reeling from economic hardship. The activities that the organisation had carried out with a generous donor budget would be difficult to replicate. And practically speaking, how sustainable was a structure that stood outside all other established community structures, how would it sustain itself?  How wide was its sphere of influence and as an independent structure, how long would it take for the members to build up their sphere of influence? It became apparent that too big a distance lay between the work that CCMT was doing with the associations and the benefit that the association members and their communities would derive from that work.

With these considerations in mind project ownership and sustainability seemed difficult to achieve. It became clear that the intangible vision of a better future would not be able to take the associations far beyond the project life span. For future work the organisation had to find a way to make the vision of a better community less of a vision and more of a tangible reality. The organisation’s work needed to have a direct link to the result, and in thinking about this, a clue was found in nature.

A tree and its branches – Locating a community’s energy

Looking at nature you will notice that as some trees grow they prune themselves. The branches that are lowest and no longer receive much sunlight have all food and moisture cut off from them until they dry up and fall off the tree. This phenomenon resembles the workings of human society in many ways. In much the same way, routines and practices that no longer serve any useful purpose to an individual or community are starved of attention and energy until they die and fall away like the pruned branches of a tree. The self pruning tree holds an important lesson for development work in general and peace building work in particular.  If the tree represents the community as a whole, then the branches represent the different aspects that constitute the community. These aspects could include, for example, institutions like schools and clinics, or certain religious and cultural practices, even behaviours, values or ideologies. These branches exist because the community chooses to put energy into them to keep them alive. This energy may be positive, where for example, a school is functioning well and therefore contributes positively to the lives of community members because their children are well educated. The same school, if not functioning well, may inspire negative energy in the form of unresolved conflict between parents and its administration.

When community members are unwilling or unable to take ownership of projects, it is likely that the group or community has chosen not to put precious ‘food’ and energy into the project or activity. In peace building projects, one possible reason for this may be the way in which projects are designed. The standard approach in designing peace building projects is to identify a conflict area, then go on to identify a specific target group that is affected by or responsible for the conflict. A ‘laboratory’ is then created in the form of a workshop, a seminar, an awareness raising campaign or a football match, to which this group is invited. The issues affecting the target group or their community are imported into this laboratory and worked on by applying various peace building theories and concepts to case studies from the community. The participants are presented with information, skills, knowledge and sometimes, through exchange visits, exposed to “people from the other side”. Within this space, attitudes change, skills are acquired and knowledge is gained.  The expectation is that the participants will leave the ‘laboratory’, take the new skills and use them to change their community and lives for the better. This assumption made up the cornerstone on which CCMT’s project with the associations was founded. As illustrated in the diagram below, the project path followed a clear linear progression.

Theory of Change

What will have taken place in the laboratory is that a new branch will have been grafted onto the tree, but once the participants leave, it is difficult for them to keep the new branch alive by putting into practice the new skills and knowledge. They are expected to go back to their community and implement the lessons learnt in the laboratory to real life, but there are no flipcharts, metaplan cards or multi coloured markers, only old behavioural patterns and dysfunctional relationships. Real life takes over and understandably, old habits that have been years in the making overwhelm the new skills that have been passed on in a typical four day workshop. Because of the metaphorical distance between the laboratories that are set up and a tangible change happening in the lives of the target group or their community, the benefit of keeping the new branch alive is not immediately apparent to participants and other than the facilitator’s word, there exists no tangible result from this experiment.

To eliminate this distance, a different approach could be used in the design of peace building projects. Where instead of grafting new branches to the tree, we locate where the community’s energy is by finding and working on the branches that already exist; in other words we work with those aspects of community life that the community is already putting energy into. This means that if an organisation is working in the area of conflict transformation, it would identify where conflicts are taking place within the community, for example conflicts amongst the leadership, or over land boundaries or access to grazing land or water. Communities will have many branches that they are already growing on their tree which they keep alive by feeding positive or negative energy. As an organisation carrying out peace building work, it is likely that our interest will be in the branches that are receiving negative energy generated by, among other things, unresolved conflicts. To identify these issues one asks the community which branch they feel they need help tending. In giving assistance, the organisation works on that specific conflict as opposed to organising a workshop on conflict management or leadership after which the leaders are expected to go back into their communities and resolve their conflicts.  Targeting the leadership in this way amounts to lifting the identified conflict out of the community context and working on it in a laboratory. It is likely that the conflict which the leadership is experiencing involves a variety of actors within the community who are influencing it and will be crucial to its resolution. However, they will be in a different mind frame when it comes to dealing with the issue because they would not have been exposed to the training the leadership has been through. It therefore becomes very important that the organisation’s work takes place on the specific conflict right where it is happening. The work is placed in the community’s reality where the energy is flowing.

The Centre for Conflict Management and Transformation from Zimbabwe is a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation.

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