Monday, 22 May 2017

PDIA: Running before walking?

I’m beginning to wonder how much more PDIA has to offer, in particular for working in volatile and contested contexts. Not that I don’t remain a big fan of Matt Andrew’s work, but because I think it’s time some reality checks were applied to how it seems to be developing. If we don’t do that, I fear that the drive to move away from rigid top down approaches might lead us to another extreme, which could actually do some real harm.

Running over planning

Matt has recently posted several blogs in which he explains how he and colleagues at Harvard have been deliberately minimising the workshopping at inception periods of PDIA programmes, in favour of ‘launchpad’ style events of no more than 1.5 days which seek to construct, deconstruct and then lead to action on the problems which have been collectively identified. He argues that the traditional evidence gathering period, complete with week long inception workshops rarely get either the diagnosis or the plans right at the outset, so it is better to adopt a more bite-sized approach in which action generates learning which in turn can shape action.

Having just experienced another week long inception workshop I have a great deal of instinctive sympathy for this. But only to a point. In the workshop I just took part in, the real value wasn’t just the “data” or “evidence” we generated. No, it was the trust we developed between local partners and international actors, both of whom are about to embark on a programme in a conflict affected country, where there are very real risks of things going wrong. That just doesn’t fit with a ‘launchpad’ approach on its own.

Bias and power

Andrews does however argue persuasively on the importance of internal rather than external actors (consultants or people from donor agencies) leading this initial work. That is absolutely right. Andrews couches this in terms of navigating the biases that external actors inevitably bring. I would argue however that this is also about navigating the power asymmetry between those actors, invariably donors or wealthy INGOs, and their local partners. It might be veiled in positive language about solidarity, but that power imbalance is there, and it isn’t going anywhere soon. If you want to get the real picture, you’ve got to step back and be prepared to hear unwelcome truths. This lack of self awareness among donors even extends to the more progressive among them, who understand the need to incentivise learning from failure.

The ‘evidence hurdle’

Andrews argues for a one page plan arising from a quick and pressurised ‘launch pad’ into action, as the ideal PDIA approach. I don’t have an ideological problem with that, but I do just wonder how much Andrews and his colleagues have considered the evidence of at least the last 20 years from the peacebuilding sector. Scholars, policy makers and practitioners alike have all argued that to understand drivers of fragility, and to build peaceful relations that break deep rooted conflict systems, requires an analytical approach that guides long term engagements. That’s not to say you don’t need to be flexible and adaptive – in fact conflict affected states are in that sense the most relevant places for PDIA thinking to guide our work. But to jettison an analysis-guided approach in favour of just ‘getting on with it’ is itself a bit retrograde.

Combined endeavours

That workshop I just did? It’s a programme that will adopt an approach that has taken much of Andrews’ earlier work and adapted it to a peacebuilding programmatic framework. I’m really excited about it, but also daunted at the scale of the challenge. I feel what we need to do is learn how to combine different approaches, taking the best of both rather than adopting PDIA wholesale, particularly some of the points Andrews argues in these latest blogs. In that way we could really begin to get to a level of change that always seems somehow just out of our reach.

Who's up for a learning agenda which combines power, conflict and governance thinking? 

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