China: Systematization and training workshop
IFAD has been supporting rural poverty reduction and rural development programmes in China since 1981, and currently there are 7 ongoing IFAD supported projects in several provinces of China.
One of the weaknesses of the projects in China has been inadequate documentation of experiences in implementing as many as 23 projects since 1981, and incorporating the learning into the ongoing and future projects.
A conscious effort has been initiated by the IFAD country office to correct this since 2004. Some of these efforts have been supported by ENRAP, a knowledge sharing network that supports initiatives of documentation and dissemination of experiences of IFAD projects and programmes in the Asia-Pacific region.
One of the ways that knowledge is produced and shared is by a unique research methodology promoted by FIDAMERICA, IFAD’s knowledge sharing network in Latin America. Named “systematization”, it has gained popularity within the IFAD family due to the positive results it has produced in documenting and disseminating poverty reduction lessons.
The IFAD China office expressed its desire to introduce this methodology in the programmes and projects it supports in China. The purpose of this workshop was to initiate a process that will eventually build the capacity of the project staff and partners to assimilate systematization into the regular activities of the projects and to contribute to producing and disseminating knowledge that would address the challenges of rural poverty alleviation. This workshop took place in August 2009 in Wuzhong (Ningxia), involving project staff, management staff, and also other resource persons.
Mandarin Chinese translations of two systematization manuals – one published by ILEIA, and another by ENRAP – were made available to the participants prior to the workshop. We also organised a visit to a nearby village, where one of the projects is being implemented. And participants received specific programme documents like the programme proposal, periodic reports, and village level data for the selected villages during the workshop.
Language was a major barrier to effective communication between the lead trainer (who could communicate only in English) and the participants (most were comfortable only with Mandarin Chinese). Of the four facilitators, only one, Ms. Li Wenjuan (Women ’s Health) was bilingual. In the absence of an interpreter, the lead trainer’s role was significantly curtailed, except, of course, where communication was possible, as with the group facilitated by Ms. Wenjuan and consequently, he could not fully contribute to many critical sessions.
There were a few coordination lapses during the pre-workshop planning stage. One of them was the absence of a language interpreter. Besides, the trainers did not have enough pre-workshop exchanges between them, resulting in some mis-match. For example, the writing workshop turned out be a general writing workshop, rather than being specific to systematization.
Similarly, while one trainer was following the ILEIA and ENRAP manuals to explain to the participants the stages in a typical systematization exercise, another trainer had improvised other categories of stages. This could have confused the participants. Then, no project documents (“secondary data”) were made available to the participants on the second day of the workshop. Without this, the participants were not able to access village level data prior to their village visit. Though all of these had a marginal cumulative impact on the learning outcomes, future workshops can easily avoid them for more optimal results.
There were also some gaps in communication during the workshop, resulting in some important sessions being abandoned, like a crucial feedback session of the lead trainer with the participants after their findings and conclusions were presented.
Despite these challenges, there were several positive outcomes from the workshop. The participants seemed to have assimilated the rationale and functionality of systematization quite well, rather than looking at the methodology as a series of steps to be followed mechanically.
This was evident from the fact that there was a fair amount of flexibility in the use of the methodology, right from the formulation of the key question, to the analysis and presentation of findings. The participants also felt that the lack of community participation in the exercise was a serious drawback, and resolved to correct this in their future systematization exercises.
As there was no feedback session with the lead trainer, or any translation of the reports or presentations of the four teams, it is difficult to comment in detail about the quality of the outputs and the learning levels achieved by the participants. However, from the limited understanding of the outputs and processes, and based on observing two of the four teams during the village visit, it is felt that:
There was a fair amount of assimilation of the theoretical concepts and the conceptual framework of this methodology. In the group exercises and other interactions, the participants exhibited innovativeness in the selection of criteria and indicators, and in understanding that they need to be decided in a participatory way. The participants also appreciated the qualitative nature of this methodology, and the value of socially relevant evidence to help with the analysis and to arrive at conclusions, in contrast to quantitative or survey based methods.
Participants also seem to have internalised the fact that writing the systematization report was not an end in itself, but a means to address several audiences with different communication products. In other words, participants were convinced of the usefulness of the exercise.
In the absence of any secondary data – project documents and reports – being made available, the participants did not get to use this data source in the exercise, and consequently, it is doubtful if the participants really appreciated the importance of these in deciding the key question and in the analysis and final report writing. The understanding of participants about participatory techniques of field investigation was inconsistent. This was in evidence during the field visit to the village.
No apparent attempts were made by the team to either cross check verbal evidence by some other source, or to try to reach the ‘invisible’ villagers and dig deeper for information. The team seemed to have succumbed to the temptation of relying completely on those villagers who already have a voice, and who naturally came forward.
Overall, the quality of interaction between the systematization team and the villagers was weak, as was evident during the final presentations / reports, which were completely devoid of any in-depth, human interest stories or narratives. Apart from the ubiquitous photographs, there was little qualitative evidence of the presence of the team in villages.
There was some lack of clarity in the initial stages about the project focus of the exercise – that the broader systematization question needs to be narrowed down to one of the sub-components of the programme, and not anything from the universe that is considered relevant by the systematization team. This was perhaps due to the total absence of project documents. However, this was eventually rectified to some extent by making available and explaining the importance of one project document (in English), and by a general note on the subject prepared by the Director of ECPRP.
Overall, the workshop helped the participants to be familiar with the steps in participating in a systematization exercise. However, while it can be asserted with reasonable certainty that the workshop equipped the participants to contribute to future systematization exercises as team members, it cannot be said with equal certainty that all the four facilitators may independently be able to facilitate or lead future exercises. It seemed that the learning achieved by the four facilitators varied a good deal, some having achieved a higher degree of learning than others.
Lessons learnt and recommendations
An orientation workshop that concerns itself with the conceptual framework of systematization, coupled with exercises that connect the conceptual framework to the project experiences of the participants, can be a vast improvement over a systematization exercise that straightaway plunges into the business of documenting project experiences. In the present workshop, perhaps the greatest gain was the conceptual clarity that the participants achieved.
There is a need to standardize two manuals that can be universally used in all systematization exercises – one for facilitators and one for team members. At the moment, there is an excellent manual available (the ILEIA manual) that addresses the needs of those leading systematization exercises (i.e. facilitators). However, there is need for a much simpler and briefer manual that can serve as a guide for systematization teams.
Part of the problem with the present workshop was that it was trying to address too many different training needs – it was meant to train not only future facilitators but also future team members. Just as two kinds of manuals are needed for the two kinds of users, the training needs for each of them also vary a great deal. While future facilitators need an intensive, hands on training lasting a week with a full systematization exercise built-in, those about to participate as team members for the first time need no more than a day’s orientation workshop.
For the training of facilitators, it is best to complete a full (rather than an abridged) systematization exercise, going through all the steps – conceptual and theoretical, field guidelines, field work (or, data collection), analysis and preparation of the report. Key stakeholders should participate in this exercise – besides a project staff member who knows the intervention process intimately, community representation in some form is necessary.
It also follows that each of these orientation-systematisations meant for facilitators should be project specific. In other words, a large multi-project group would make a complete systematization exercise unfeasible. However, this does not preclude having several groups and train a number of facilitators at the same workshop, as long as all of the groups are confined to a single project, while the trainee facilitators could be drawn from various projects.
Please write to Pankaj Gupta (e-mail: email@example.com);
to Sun Yinhong, Country Presence Officer, IFAD Beijing, China (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org);
or to Shalini Kala, ENRAP, Knowledge Networking for Rural Development in Asia-Pacific Region (e-mail: email@example.com)