Thursday, January 8, 2015

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Stories from the Road

The Creator of Yerevan

When I arrived in Yerevan I began to construct a new city; it is very similar to the Yerevan on my city tourist map and it is similar to the Yerevan of the people who have lived here all their lives. But this is the Yerevan of my creation. I have populated it with plane trees and nineteenth century buildings of grey basalt and pink limestone; with cobble stones and hidden courtyards spied through arched laneways; and people in the street in their apparent boredom or beauty, each carrying with them their hopes and fears. 
And me, making my way, new to this city, thinking about the opportunities I might have here to build a life and where I might live and how I might use this as a base to change the way we do development in this part of the world. I have also included the elderly white haired woman, long nosed and leather skinned in the seat on the bus beside me. I have made her a grandmother who has seen much happiness and much suffering under the Soviet time. And she has made her own Yerevan that is in many ways similar to the one I have created. But it is different; the streets in her Yerevan are longer and have more hazards; and the familiarity of the parks where she was courted as a young woman; and above the shop where over a dinner party in the home of her future parents in law her late husband proposed to her amid much laughter and happiness, for everyone had been waiting for that day.  And of the house where her daughter lives now with her grandchildren, and the house where her mother died; these landmarks will never be in my Yerevan. And this is a world she has constructed during her lifetime. And the young man on the seat opposite us, coming from university.  He has made a world that has very similar street layout to the old woman’s. But the streets are shorter and his landmarks are cafes where he and his friends meet; a lot of the detail of his Yerevan has yet to be completed as he only has thoughts now for the bus stop and the short walk up Mashtots Avenue, to the Retro Café and girl named Liana who he hopes will be there with his friends.
I see Mount Ararat, snow covered stark against the blue sky and the Mother Armenia statue watching over the city. But the elderly woman sees a Mt Ararat that is a reminder of the land where her grandparents died during the genocide and of stories of the trek her parents made from Van. Instead of Mother Armenia she sees the statue of Stalin who looked over the city from that same place before it was torn down in the early sixties. And I go on creating this Yerevan and take it into my soul, step by step, brick by brick as I wander through the streets of this city built nearly three thousand years ago. This Yerevan, that last year, it did not exist to me.
(Inspired by Vasily Grossman - An Armenian Sketchbook)

One way or another we are all creators of the universe we inhabit and somehow we are inclined to forget that each of us inhabits a different world of our own creation. In international development this reality can be overlooked and dangerous. At one level we know that people inhabit different worlds but at the same time we can still think that once they see our world, as we see it, they will leave their own and join ours and our way of seeing it.  And the folly of this is identified in the story above. 

As I am not burdened by the ties of the past and see opportunity to change this part of the world, my naïve optimism is not constrained. The elderly woman is woven into the cloth of the place; she is an integral part of the community here and its history in ways that I can never be. Perhaps she struggles to come to terms with a State that is no longer as controlled and tough as times often were then;  there is no longer certainty, as there was under the Soviets, where work, housing and food were guaranteed. And to the young man, who at this time in his life is very focused on himself, sees many future opportunities; what he will do and how he will make things work for him belong to a code that he is making up as he goes along.

To make the inquiry easier I will name each of the world views in the story above with a color and attribute the color with certain characteristics, and for this I will use Ken Wilbers stages of consciousness as a guide[i]. We will suppose the writers way of seeing and making sense of the world is color coded Turquoise, the elderly woman’s worldviews Amber and the University student’s as Orange.

So, beginning with the writer who has the Turquoise view of the world, let’s suppose that what is important to him is holistic, intuitive thinking and cooperative actions with others. He is inclined towards combining feeling with knowledge; seeing himself as both distinct and a blended part of a larger whole. He recognizes that everything connects to everything else. His thinking tends not to be based on external rules like those of the older woman. He is aware of the interplay between thought, action, and effects and of the need both to transform himself and others. He seeks personal and spiritual transformation and continually strives to balance thought, action, feeling and perception as well as how he is influenced by others and the effect he has on them.

We are supposing that the elderly woman has an Amber way of seeing the world; she tries hard to lead a stable and purposeful life. She sees life as having meaning, direction and purpose with predetermined outcomes. She avoids conflict, believes in conformity and fitting in and that it is important to sacrifice herself for a larger cause, to do her duty, to honor what is rightfully determined by others higher up and the laws of the state and the rules in her religion.
It is important to her that she does what is expected and she believes that diligence leads to future rewards and in the necessity for the laws, policy, regulations, rules and discipline to maintain order where everyone will ultimately be better off. She believes strongly in principles of right and wrong, black and white; being faithful, maintaining order and harmony and she has a strong sense of personal guilt if she thinks she hasn’t done enough.

I have given the University student the world view of Orange. His world view for now is driven by a desire for success and personal autonomy. He sees self-interest as most important; if he doesn’t look out for himself then who will. He is inclined to see that progress is right and inevitable, that there are winners and losers - he wants to be a winner and prosper. He knows he will need to take risks for this but is optimistic that relying on himself he will succeed. He is competitive, goal focused and believes that science will always triumph and the earth’s resources are there for him to make use of so that he can prosper.
Ultimately for him it is results that matter, he wants to be an initiator rather than a follower, he wants to use his time well, to be effective to build a future in which he is the principle beneficiary. He works on being logical, driven by data and experience and is very goal oriented.

Within International Development there are multiple dimensions where these worldviews can collide within the organization, with stakeholders, government and communities. For this reflection however, I will only reference the development organization itself. We might have aspirations constructed by Turquoise but then the primary implementers might generally have a “center of gravity” at Amber. This means that while the achievement of the aspirations may require flexibility, risk and comfort with uncertainty, ambiguity and continuous learning, the body of the organization may be centered in conformity, policy, rules, risk minimization, control and how everyone fits in to a similar world view. 
At the same time the Amber implementers may perceive that they don’t have the requisite flair, creativity and new thinking that Orange could provide, yet when they try to bring Orange into the system they are inclined to stifle the life out of it and Orange can’t survive. Turquoise also finds it difficult to survive in the Amber system for while it understands Amber it can become exhausted as it continually fights for enough flexibility to survive. 
In this ‘Stages of Consciousness’ way of making sense of the world, a stage can only really understand the Stages below it and of the three worldviews described, Turquoise is higher, followed by Orange, followed by Amber. Turquoise can therefore understand both the worldviews of Orange and Amber and Orange can understand the world view of Amber. But Amber only sees those systems below it, not those above - in this case Orange and Turquoise. 

The challenge is when an organization’s center of gravity is Amber then it tends to want all other worldviews to see it’s view as the highest view, which may be sustainable in a bus company where order, maintenance and scheduling are critical but it is a problem in something as messy and multifaceted as International Development.

[i] The part of the reflection of the color profiles draws heavily on an excellent paper by Barret Brown: Brown, Barrett (February 2007). An Overview of Developmental Stages of Consciousness, Integral Institute. Based upon research by: Ken Wilber in Integral theory and Integral psychology; Clare Graves, Don Beck, and Chris Cowan in the development of values; Jane Loevinger and Susanne Cook-Greuter in the development of self-identity.

Postcard from Yerevan

Gods Tears

Kate told him that three of her friends had been hit by a car at 3am crossing Tumanyan St last night. The road must have been deserted at that time, it has four lanes. But it happened.
She said the passenger in the Mercedes had died, no seat belt, thrown into the windscreen.
The three pedestrians will likely survive but have many broken bones and internal injuries
She was thoughtful.
Her phone rang; it was her friend, calling and upset because Travis was her friend too. In the early hours of this morning, they thought Travis would die. But she has learned that he will survive and is now being airlifted to the States but unlikely to return to Armenia.

Kate said that she realized again how fragile life is. He said “Kate, life is only a moment to moment thing, this very moment is all we have, this is all that is real, not the past moment, nor the moment to come, there is nothing more than this……… ever, how many times that repeats is in some ways meaningless. So death is just the end of these moments, nothing to worry about. ” She said that is beautiful. Inside this restaurant in the heart of Yerevan it was warm and the wine was good. Outside the rain was falling like Gods tears and in the street below the automatic wipers of a black BMW cleaned those tears off the windscreen in lazy efficient swipes. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Stories from the Road

Parable of the Bus

This is the parable of two committees that each wish to reach a destination.  One committee takes care about how it prepares itself for the journey, establishing a clear destination, carefully choosing leadership, developing a plan, attracting others and having clear expectations of members . They also decide how they will develop the power to influence others who may be able to assist them overcome obstacles on their way, as well as ensuring they have the required resources for the journey.  The other committee is not as clear about their destination, the means of getting there and this has clear implications for sustainability and the likelihood of their success.
The reason I conceived this story was that over many meetings, with many different committees, I found that often committee members seemed to see each of the aspects of organising and running a successful committee as being separate and unrelated, so I wanted a way to show how each aspect of a successful committee was a key part of every other aspect.  I wanted one story that contained all the different elements of a successful committee and was flexible enough to adapt to different situations in different counties
The bus parable contains a structure to stimulate discussion and is able to link all the key elements that a committee is likely to encounter in one story.  For example a committee without a clear goal will likely flounder or they may have a clear goal but weak leadership or governance or strong governance but no agreed action plan or map. The aim is really to convey that a committee is  only as strong as their weakest element. I also found that when individual problems arose, I needed a way to be able to place whatever was happening in the moment within a bigger context and within one story and show its relationship to other aspects of their committee life.
Every country on earth has buses, by different names:  Matatu’s in Kenya, Bis in Indonesia or Marshotni in Armenia and all communities  seem to readily identify with them and a the concept of the journey.  I have chosen what I have found to be the most important elements of the “journey” and throughout there is the parallel between running a bus company and taking a road journey and the journey of the committee to its particular destination or goal. At the same time the ‘container’ of this analogy is so rich that there are any number of improvisations that can be added depending on the situation at hand.

But we are also inviting on to our vehicle other community members. They are not the bus company but they can board the bus and reach the same destination but on certain conditions, and they don’t have the decision rights roles and responsibilities of the committee.  It may be that the advantages of being a member means that they pay a discounted price for events that are run but still we don’t exclude the community at large, but it may be they have to pay a different price or receive lesser benefits than members.

The Bus

The bus is used as a metaphor for the committee themselves. They are the vehicle, they are the fuel and they are the bus company. They decide the route and maintain the vehicle. One of the key elements of this part of the storyis the question,  “Whose bus is this?” I have found myself reverting back to this question time and time again as the journey progresses.
It is often tricky for the facilitator, who is usually part of an NGO and who very well may have initiated the initial committee meeting, not to own or be perceived as owning the journey. This becomes more complex if the NGO provides the venue, refreshments and maybe also provides assistance with transport costs. In almost every society the host is the one who bears the expense and therefore it is their event. The questions of “Whose bus is this? Whose journey is this? Who is it that wants to get to the destination and must pay the price to get there?”, helps to clarify the separate roles and separate agendas of the NGO or facilitator and the committee. I sometimes portrayed myself as a bus company consultant, to position my place more clearly in the picture.

The Destination

Committees form for a number of reasons and there will generally be several external goals that are stated. Of course committees are only a collection of individuals and each individual will also have a number of underlying reasons for being part of a committee and hidden assumptions for what they may gain from being part of the committee.  An individual’s primary motivation could be ego-centric to meet needs of status, power, the expectations of others or the perception that there will be handouts along the way. It could be an individual’s primary motivator is socio-centric, a sense of belonging and the power that a committee has collectively to do things that the individual cannot. This would typically apply to people who think that they will benefit from their membership of a self-help group. A member’s  motivation to join may also be more world-centric, in this case it is not just for “us” the group but for “all of us” our community, our children our future. In this case the member’s primary desire is to better the local community in the knowledge that if the community does better they too will do better as well. The likelihood is that the reason a person is willing to join a committee is a combination of these three aspects; me, us and all of us.
If we think of our stated committee goal(s) as the destination, then it is likely that there can be broad agreement. But when we take into account the interior aspects of the committee members it is likely that on the way to the destination there are a number of things that each is seeking to satisfy. And if we are not explicit about this “internal” aspect of the committee and the journey then we may find ourselves taking detours on the way to meet individual passengers’ needs and as a result may never make our destination. Members may become impatient with the journey and get off the bus, or the bus may become lost or bogged or hijacked by bandits.
It is not so much that all the different agendas that individuals have for making the journey may not be voiced but the facilitator can make all the potentially different reasons for joining a committee in the me, us and all us perspectives explicit. And having done that, we now have a way for naming what might come up, in a new way. It is also easy to relate to the story of the bus. Everyone has their own reasons for taking a journey and they may or may not share these with others but if the bus is to reach its destination it needs to stay on course and generally the needs of individuals are not part of that destination. And that is the reason for having a clear destination, a good map and a strong driver or leader. So, for the journey, individual agendas are fine but if they risk taking the bus off course then we need to see if their individual need is on the route the bus is taking or whether they may be better to take another bus. So at this early stage we can embolden the committee to ask at any time, “are we still on course or are we taking a detour?”
As part of this scene setting we can make the comparison between two buses: Good Bus and Bad Bus. The Good Bus has a clearly marked sign as to where it is going.  As a result, everyone on board is happy and confident, from the driver who is sure where he needs to steer the bus, to the passengers who can relax and enjoy the ride, confident that the destination is clear.

Compare this with the Bad Bus. The sign has fallen to the ground, no one, least of all the driver or chairperson, has clarity as to the destination. As a result, there is a lack of confidence that the bus will reach any destination; people pointing in different directions as to where they think the bus should go next. Others are moving away from the bus, having separate meetings in small sub-committees, concerned, uncertain or afraid of what is next. .
Because of the anxiety and confusion it is likely that many passengers have lost their motivation for the journey; some will drift away or just simply return home. This may also mean they are much less likely to want to take a similar journey in the future. It is also impossible to see how the bus will attract new passengers, which will be necessary if the vehicle is to remain viable.

The Passengers

The committee is the bus, the vehicle, they are also the fuel and energy and it is them who set the destination. And they are also the passengers; the bus they have brought into reality is their vehicle for reaching the destination they have decided on.
But they also want to attract other passengers as this will increase the viability of the bus line and make it more sustainable into the future. They want the NGO on the bus, and other NGOs, they want funders on the bus and government; and they also want other community members to join them on the journey as the more people who pay the fare the more viable the operation and the more chance they will reach the destination for themselves and others.
But they can only attract other passengers if the destination is clear and that all the other passengers see that the price they pay is less than the value of getting to the destination. And this is one more reason why it is so crucial to fix a clear destination. We don’t take a bus that takes us somewhere near a city, we take one that delivers us to an exact location.
Everyone knows that there is a price to pay for taking a bus journey. In the case of our bus the prices differ. For the organizing committee the price will include their time, the risk of raising, and perhaps not fulfilling, expectations in their community, the use of their mobile phone, the cost of getting to meetings and refreshments. So the question for the committee is, are they willing to pay this price and to them is the price worth paying to reach the destination?
In addition to the committee itself there are different prices for the different types of passengers. For community members the price might be to pay a monthly membership fee or be involved in certain activities. For NGO’s the price will be higher, and may include financial assistance for projects or staff expertise. For the Government the price may be representing the community’s needs within local government or providing various forms of endorsement, expertise or meeting venues.

One thing is clear, if you are taking the journey you have to be prepared to pay the price and people or organizations making the journey have to be clear about the price before they join. If they don’t pay, then as much as we might value them, we need to kick them off the bus!  If we don’t then it raises the question, “Why should anyone pay?” and soon there is dissention, dissatisfaction and mistrust among all passengers proposing to make the journey.

One of the real benefits of this part of the story is that it again positions the NGO and the facilitator as part of the journey, as entities which need to pay a price but are still clearly separate from ownership of the venture. Essentially the committee is using them to assist them in making the journey more viable.
Another benefit in talking about passengers and who are needed  on the bus is that it can stimulate discussion as to the need for a world-centric perspective. There is always a danger that a committee that originally sets itself up to benefit the whole community reverts back to being a “self-help group “just focusing on the needs and interests of the committee members. Now, it is possible to cut transport costs and reach a destination by a committee hiring a minibus for their own ends. And there is a legitimate place for this. But if the communication of the committee is to ask for wide community support as well as support from NGOs and other organizations and then they take this support and invest it in their own minibus journey then those other passengers who also paid the fare but were left behind are not going to be happy or supportive in the future.
This area of passengers also leads into the other issues of why passengers might want to get on this bus in the first place. And this opens up discussion as to the need for a good map, a good driver, a roadworthy bus and clear communications from the conductor.

Road Map

In the context of the Parable of the Bus, the map is the plan of what route or process the bus will take to achieve its destination. It needs to be clear and unambiguous to everyone. We all know there could be unforeseen events that we will need to contend with, blockages on the road, flooding, a flat tyre and even sickness on the bus. All the same we are setting off with a clear path in mind. The map gives passengers confidence, it means that only those passengers interested in the route will join, it clarifies the benefit of paying the price as the route has been well thought through and it gives the driver a clear picture of where he or she needs to steer the bus – or in another way, how to steer the committee to achieve the stated destination.

The lack of a clear and agreed map means that at every crossroad, the journey needs to be renegotiated. Again the confusion and energy that this process entails causes a lack of confidence among the passengers and may well cause them to abandon the journey.


Leadership in this story of the bus is represented by the driver but also takes into account all the office holders of the committee, the secretary, the treasure, and the heads of any subcommittees.
I have found that it is good to use the committee to spell out how they see the job descriptions of these positions and what is expected before people are voted into the roles. This can be difficult as the committee will probably want to make the election of officers their first task. The challenge is that until we know the road the bus will take, it is difficult to know who will be best to lead the process  . So I generally suggest that we have an interim committee of office bearers and then to have fresh elections once the destination and the map have been agreed.

Of course, what we are looking for is leadership that has the full support and confidence of the passengers. What can help keep this on track and jump the hurdle of who committee members think will suit them best from a “me and us “perspective is to keep the destination and map very firmly to the front of the discussion and to ask the question of who will be the best driver, or leaders for “all of us” for this particular task.

 I believe it is useful to discuss the possible scenarios depicted above. What if no one wants to really take responsibility for leadership? What if there is a continual fight as to who should lead and confusion over their authority and the potential loneliness of having to be leader and not always please everyone? Having firmly set the expectations for the roles of leadership, while the positions are still vacant,  I think it is helpful to talk about scenarios that could lead to problems. What if elected officers don’t attend meetings, what if they don’t do what they have agreed to do, what if the committee loses confidence in them, what if they are trying in some way to unfairly take advantage of their position and how often will officers be elected? And then to allow for hypothetical discussions on what action the committee will take if these situations arise.
This is also the place to discuss the various levels of involvement: what is the role of the officers of the committee and what are we hoping for in support from the larger community? For some reason this element can be unclear. How do they explain their role on the committee as distinct from general membership of our organisation and our engagement with the wider community?
Again we can use the bus analogy. We are passengers but we are also the bus company, setting the destination, deciding the route, deciding the price of the journey.


The issue of communication is critical particularly in the early honeymoon stages of the committee’s formation. If the committee exaggerates what it is proposing to do then it creates a problem managing community expectations as it moves forward, it potentially straitjackets committee members to advocating for things they have promised. It creates stress if community members pay a monthly membership subscription only to find what they thought they would receive in return is not on the immediate agenda of the committee. And the committee chairperson or driver cannot meet everyone’s expectations.

The analogy from the bus story is that it is the conductor’s role to lean out the bus door and shout out the destination. If there are more than one “voice” it will create chaos if one voice is shouting Nairobi and the next one Cape town. Clear ‘single voice” communication is key to getting more passengers on the bus and keeping harmony once the passengers’ board.


If one is going to board a bus and the journey may take several years then it is important that the bus is well maintained and that we don’t wait for breakdowns to fix a problem. Typically a breakdown will happen when we are not expecting it and at times of stress, like bumpy roads and steep hard hills, we need to be on the move. A well maintained bus is continually checked to make sure it is safe and up to the journey ahead. I ask committee members to make a list of all the things that they would want to make sure is working on the bus: the horn, the indicators, the brakes etc. and then to make a list of all the things that they think would be a good roadworthiness test for a committee. Typically the group will come up with expectations for the driver and what a good chairperson will look like, how they will show respect to one another, how they will be accountable to follow through on what they commit to, how they will attend regular meetings and so on. Then I try to have them honestly score themselves between 1 and 10 on how they see themselves now against this set of standards. This then forms a benchmark for improvement and there usually follows an agreement to keep checking back regularly on the health of the vehicle, in this case the rules of the committee. I have found committees tend to have an exaggerated view of how well they are performing and so it it useful to talk about how a score of five might look and what would we see in a committee that scored a perfect ten.

There is wisdom also in having discussions about the opposite, the bad bus, in each of the aspects above and particularly the roadworthiness aspect.  What will happen if we don’t have a good map, what will happen if our communications are confused and what will happen if we take things for granted and don’t keep the bus in this case the committee in good shape for the journey.


Depending on the country and applicable laws it is important that the committee has the appropriate registration. This will be important if they are to own property, have a bank account and apply for grants. I have found that most committees are aware of the necessary registration requirements but it is always good to make sure that they check the legal structure they are proposing is the best from the available options. Otherwise they may find legal  restrictions placed on their activities. I think it is important that the committee raises the money for registration themselves; after all it is always their bus and their journey.

Good Bus: The right registration means no problems for the journey

Bad Bus: The wrong registration can mean real problems as the journey unfolds


If a bus, like the committee, is well maintained, is meeting a need and has the support of the community, then when there are issues, the committee is in an excellent position to advocate for change.  Government in particular are often not used to unified community groups with a clear purpose and destination and are surprisingly humble in response.

Our Goal (at the end)

If the map is good we can always find out where we are on the journey, we can measure our progress, tell the story of our journey and how far we have come. We can celebrate as we progress and we have a sense of how far we have to go. In many ways the actual road unfolds as we take the journey. The map is just a map and should never be confused with the landscape. But with a clear destination in mind and common purpose the end is actually always in sight.

From my experience there is no right time to raise issues in the story. I generally try to tell the whole story in one sitting and then we focus on where the committee is at a particular time and what is the most important aspect to focus on. When formation stages, challenges or problems are brought forward in subsequent meetings we try to use the bus story to solve them so that we have one consistent thread that can endure long into the life of the committee rather than making everything up based on who has the floor or what the expert says.
I know from many experiences that the story of the bus is sticky and when revisiting a committee even after a gap of several years, when I ask what we talked about last, someone will always say, we talked about the bus, and our journey and how we were travelling.

The Final Element
The final element of the Parable is how this metaphor relates to development practitioners and staff working in NGOs. From the NGO perspective there are three key elements. In order to make a particular journey with a group, the NGO staff needs to be a competent driver and licensed to drive, the vehicle must be capable of making the journey and the roads need to be appropriate to the particular vehicle. So thinking about the interior of NGO itself, the vehicle refers to a particular model or approach that may be chosen in order to guide, or make the journey with a group; it could an approach for a sector such as an approach to economic development, health, water, agriculture or education. Or it could be an approach that is designed for a target group such as a group of framers, women, youth or and people with a disability. The driver needs to have the competence or appropriate license to drive the approach, which means they have to be given the necessary training and support or be licensed by the organization to drive the vehicle safely. And finally the organization itself needs to have created the necessary enabling environment and internal pathways to be able to drive the approach. If any of these three elements are missing or mismatched the chances are that the driver will come to grief and often he or she will be a casualty along with those they are taking with them. 

© Words Jock Noble; Available for use with permission and attribution
Pictures from World Vision Australia and previously used in Indonesia. A new set of diagrams is currently being developed.

Postcard from Yerevan

Driving Armenia

The Road to Alevirdi

I can’t figure out all the features of my brand new fully optioned Suzuki S X Cross. The manual that came with it is in Russian, so the clock is still 20 minutes fast.  I need to burn some CDs because the radio only plays Armenian folk songs and Russian pop music. Until recently I have been getting around by taxi, old Russian Volgas that drive like tractors, or squeezing in to little boxy Ladas nicotine yellow on the ceiling vinyl. Most taxi drivers have more lucky charms bobbing about on their dashboards than a dancing witch doctor. Real rabbits feet,  or bits of fury skin that I am guessing are from a Yeti,  crucifixes, Turkish evil eyes hanging like grapes from key rings, little elephants with jewels on their head and pictures of saints and patriarchs, Jesus and Mary, hallelujah. And driving with them I know how they feel, you need all the road luck you can get here. So I have hung a rosary from my rear view mirror and stuck a little panel of Jesus, Mary and some orthodox patriarch on my dashboard. I trust in God but I also installed a  little camera which records every journey in case a  voodoo spangled vodka breathed taxi driver or rogue elephant  bus driver is feeling too lucky at my expense.I am thinking Armenian people often seem to be afraid of spaces. Like you can be sitting at a table with 6 people and everyone is talking, actually it sounded like arguing but I have learned this is just the Armenian way of very engaged conversation. And I look around and everyone, I mean all six of my friends are talking at once.  At first this was a mystery but then I surmised everyone was worried about leaving a space in the conversation that someone might move into, so they all moved in together.  And I have also noticed this in queues at the airport, if I leave a small space in front of me then someone will see that space and think that I don’t want it and move into it.  I am learning that the traffic works in a similar way.  If you leave a couple of car lengths between you and the car in front, someone moves in to fill the space. The effect of this is that about every 2 kilometers there is a rear end collision. You know because the cars have to stay in place on the road until the police get there and check things out. It all seems very civilized. When someone runs into the back of someone else, the drivers get out and shake hands, then when the police arrive they all shake hands again. I don’t know what happens after that, but I suspect that sooner or later I will find out first hand.There are many positives about driving here.  One incredibly civilized aspect is that traffic fines only cost between $12.50 and $25.00, a lot for locals but affordable for me. And there is a nine kilometer an hour grace on speed, so in a 50km an hour zone you can drive at 59 km per hour.  And the upside of people cutting in in front of you without warning is that you are graciously allowed to do whatever you like with or without indicators and it seems perfectly natural  and up to others to get out of your way. One slightly disconcerting driving trait is that most drivers seem to cut corners. So if you are on the inside lane you expect the drivers in the outer lane just to cut straight across in front of you, no fuss, no guilt, no indicators. It seems that one assumes this is expected and so to give way or beat them to the corner.  When you want to make a turn into incoming traffic you just inch forward to the point that other cars can no long swerve to miss you, in fact you are now blocking their lane and then you proceed with your turn as though getting out of their way is a favor to them.And then there is the joyful use of horns.  In the West a horn is often a questionable instrument. In the United States you use it in the wrong place someone in front may get out of the car in front and shoot you. In Australia they can be like some accessory that is too good to throw away but not much use.  But here they are used to express the full range of driving emotions. I have noticed that if one of my friends makes a particular unexpected veer into the lane of a trailing road user, they will react with a horn of distress from behind which is quickly followed by my fiends retaliatory horn to the road in front of us.  My use of horn is mainly directed towards buses the size of whales which pull out from the side of the road without any awareness of we smaller fish who just happen to be swimming past.I think the only really disconcerting aspect of driving here is that every so often one encounters an oligarch in a black, top of the range, BMW or Mercedes four wheel drive, with black tinted windows, gleaming chrome and sometimes a trailing body guard car. They are beating three lanes of bumper to bumper traffic by crossing the double lines and hurling themselves down the wrong side of the road into your path. I guess if they get stopped the fine is only $25.00 which is nothing if you have the wealth to live in something that looks like the Palace at Versailles and survive the drive. And it is the same at crossroads, it doesn’t matter about the rules of right of way, the oligarch in the black Hummer has the rule book that we all follow.  I am guessing there are a lot of lucky charms on their dashboards too.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Bear that Enjoyed Reading

Stories from the Road

Hercules with Maggie Robin

In olden times bears were worshiped by humans.  They were often used as symbols of the Christian church because  they were clever, powerful, wonderful climbers and fast runners. Because of their many attributes there was once a man who set about trying to teach a mountain bear to read. He spoke to the bear at length about the advantages of reading and how the bear could earn a better living if he could learn from books. The bear sat quietly and listened to the man. The bear could tell the man was very convinced of his argument and the bear felt sure that if he just sat quietly and pretended that he understood whatever the man was talking about then he would get some kind of reward.  To thank the bear for listening, the man gave the bear a small pile of raisins. After some time the man gave the bear a book but the bear didn’t know what to do with it. So the man put a raisin between every page, and the bear liked the sweet raisins so much he turned every page and found another raisin. The man was very pleased because the bear was now holding the book, looking at every page and then turning to the next page.  The man was sure that this was just the encouragement that the bear needed to begin to learn to read. When the bear got to the last page and the last raisin and was sure there were no more raisins he threw away the book disappointedly and lumbered back into the forest to look for more food.
(This is a retelling of an old Armenian fable)


In International Development we often find ourselves embarking on something that someone, somewhere seems to think is a good idea and will benefit people’s lives. Mostly we focus on the external drivers and the manifestation of concrete, visible change as the indicator of success. We assume that seeing external change means that there is some kind of corresponding “internal” change, a change in the way people who are poor see things and make sense of their world as demonstrated by their actions. But the priority of getting external change often leads to us only focusing on doing those things that will make it seem that change is taking place. And as is the case for the man in the story, we can be blind to what is really going on. In order to see external change the man effectively bribes the bear to take the action he desires, as though the external action will lead to internal change. But in fact, it is almost always the reverse. But if, like the man, you are looking for fast results and what you do if offer the equivalent of raisins, it will be inconsequential and not contribute to the desired change. The only way the bear is ever going to read is if he has the capability to read; even if he can he needs the motivation to determine that learning to read seems  like a genuinely better option than his other alternatives. Clearly, in the story, neither is the case. In International Development, as often as not when the project finishes and the funding runs out, a community reverts back to what it knows, just as the bear did, because only the external manifestations of change, driven by one form or raisins or another, were present. 

© Words Jock Noble

Photograph from the web site Hercules the Bear - - Assumed to be in the public domain and unable  to contact Maggie or Andy Robin

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Kings New Clothes

Stories from the Road

Once there was a proud king who spent much money on fine clothes so that all could see that he was indeed a man of great importance. He spared no expense to keep his reputation as someone who always wore the finest clothes and stood out at every occasion.
One day two swindlers came to the city. They said they were fine weavers and master tailors and knew how to make clothes that were beyond the imagination of ordinary men. They said the clothes they made were so soft and fine that they might have been made of spider web, that the colors they used were so extraordinary that they may have come from the feathers of a peacock and they had the amazing property that anyone who was stupid or incompetent could not see them.
The king who was always looking for something new to impress the citizens of the city was captivated and enthusiastic to have a suit of clothes made for the upcoming parade. Also he thought I will be able to tell which of my ministers and advisors are incompetent and I will be able to tell the clever people from the stupid ones.
So the king paid the tailors a large deposit and they set up their weaving looms and pretended to set to work, often working late into the night.
After a few days the king sent his most trusted Minister to see how work was progressing as the procession was less than a week away.
The minister went to the rooms where the swindlers were pretending to weave the thread for the clothes but he couldn’t see a thing. “Well” said one of the swindlers, “isn’t this the finest cloth you have ever seen?” But the old minister could still see nothing. “Goodness” he thought, “I can’t see a thing, am I stupid and unfit for my position?” So he said “This fabric is the most beautiful I have ever seen! Magnificent colors and the patterns are superb, the king will be thrilled!” The swindlers then went into detail naming the patterns and describing how the colors all fit together to create an extraordinarily effect, so that they could be sure the Minister would report all this to the King.
When the minister returned to the king he said, “Your majesty the colors are amazing, the patterns sensational and the quality of the thread beyond belief.” So the king was well satisfied and waited in expectation.
The king sent other ministers to follow the progress and each returned to the king with reports filled with words like ‘Amazing!, Excellent! Magnificent!’
The night before the procession, the weavers stayed up all night pretending to sew the garments and everyone could see they were working feverishly to finish them on time.
The day of the procession, he weavers carefully brought the imaginary clothes to the kings dressing rooms and asked him to undress. Then they carefully set about dressing the king, firstly helping him put on the imaginary trousers then shirt and waste coat and cape, saying as they did that the exquisite lightness and quality of the fabric and the care of the tailoring meant that it may feel to the king that he was wearing nothing. 
Then the swindlers stood back and admired the king, “Oh your majesty, you look wonderful, the colors are amazing, the patterns, works of art, the clothes fit you perfectly, what a luxurious outfit!” And they turned to the king’s servants who clapped and nodded enthusiastically in appreciation.
The king looked at himself in the mirror and had to pretend that he could see what apparently everyone else could see and he smiled and nodded with great appreciation.  The king’s servant picked up the imaginary train of his cloak and held it up with great ceremony so as no one would suspect that they couldn’t see anything either.
And so the king went out onto the great steps and under the canopy that had been erected, he was  surrounded by thousands of his subjects who were also waiting expectedly to see the marvelous new clothes for all had heard of the miraculous suit being made for the occasion.
While all the attention was on the king, the swindlers took the gold they had been given in many payments and all the fine silks that had been provided to them for the work with and that they had hidden away and quickly left the town without anyone noticing.
Everyone was commenting on how magnificent the king’s clothes were. For like everyone else no one wanted to appear incompetent or stupid. Then a small child came looked up, saw the king and called out, “the king is naked, he has no clothes!” And suddenly everyone knew it to be true. But the king was a proud man and he continued to march through the streets as naked as the day he was born.
This tale was made popular by  Hans Christian Andersen (1837). Andersen's source was a Spanish story recorded by Don Juan Manuel (1282-1348). The tale also has its equivalents in Sri Lanka, Turkey, India and England


This story illustrates many things, particularly how a chosen belief system, as flawed as it may be, can survive when everyone agrees to maintain an illusion for in many cases the status quo makes more sense to the people involved than their alternatives as they see them.
Often in International Development a project does not go as well as hoped and intended. Development is a messy business and there are so many factors that can lead to outcomes that are lower than expected or circumstances which add unforeseen complexity. I have been involved in many projects where we have all realized that we need to change our activities or approaches. The place I always start, whether it is with a group in a community or a group of staff, is to ask what is working, what is not working and what would we like to do differently? Surprisingly, even though all is not going as hoped and everyone involved can talk about the problems encountered, as often as not, people say that nothing should change and we should just give things more time and redouble our existing efforts. In a sense this is, like the king, deciding to march on naked.
It seem obvious that, for us to try to make changes,  we have to admit there is something that needs changing and here the road can begin to get sticky. To admit that something needs to change means that we must in some sense admit to the at least partial failures in what we have been doing.
The king in the story had been “working with expectation” on his new outfit for some time and when faced with the choice of changing his strategy and admitting that his assumptions and faith had been in fact been stupid, and with this worst fear realized, he elected instead to continue with “the project” and march through the streets naked, even though it was obvious to all that the new clothes project was a failure. It is interesting to surmise whether on meeting the naked king in the street, any of the subjects would tell him outright the new outfit was not working. Or whether in spite of the previous disclosure of a serious problem with the plan, everyone would inadvertently conspire to maintain the illusion. And thus nothing would change.
In this story, everyone has something to lose by admitting that they made a mistake, so in a certain way it makes sense to continue with the illusion. Development psychologist and author Robert Kegan[i] calls this ‘immunity to change’. Kegan describes how often it can seem to make more sense to do what we are doing even when we are failing relative to our aspirations rather than make a personal change to better meet our stated goals or mission.
So for example, the king is proud and doesn’t want to admit that he is wrong so he decides to stick with the program and march naked, as this in some ways better meets his need to be perceived as right rather than to admit he was wrong, change his plan and adopt a new set of clothes.
Kegan describes how our hidden commitments or assumptions are very often the things that drive our behaviors and the actions we take are those that are consistent with these hidden assumptions.  In many situations the actions required to meet our lofty and genuinely held and stated beliefs would require actions that were in fact inconsistent with our hidden assumptions.
Several years ago in Africa I observed that a displaced persons camp had sprung up in the area the NGO  was working in. It transpired that even though there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children living in this new village of makeshift tents, in the dry scrubby hills, the NGO was not actively involved in doing anything to improve their lives or assist the children attend school or their parents access basic services. It was not through a shortage of funds; apparently nothing was being done because it was not part of the NGO’s plan for the area. The manager held an MBA and was bright and efficient and the staff teams committed to the organization and morale was high. Every morning at devotions they all read out loud  the stated values of the organization together which were pasted on the wall: “we are child focused, we are committed to the poor, we are responsive, we value people and their right to freedom, justice, peace and opportunity”. At the time I asked myself, how can it be that these staff are so sincerely committed to these values and yet are not trying to respond to this obvious need on their doorstep? I think the answer lies somewhere in this concept of ‘immunity to change’. How the ‘self-identity body’ can seek self-preservation – like an immunity reaction – and only take action when it is consistent to the hidden commitments and assumptions or operating system of the person.  So in this case I surmise that those, who could have taken responsive action,
 were working within a world view something like the following: “we will be more successful if we stick to the plan; change often involves risk and this may work against me; my manager and those above will not appreciate the additional workload and changes that being more responsive to this situation will entail; I need to show I am focused on the existing plans”. And behind this world-view is likely to be a hidden assumption something like:  “I will succeed if I don’t take risks and don’t leave myself open to blame”.  With this hidden assumption largely fixed and unrecognized, personal change and action, regardless of any espoused principles, is unlikely to take place.
This concept can apply to the group of staff who will  take 30 minutes and convincingly describe what is not working in a project, and when asked: “So what should we do? What would you like to do? “ The answer as often as not is, “let’s work for another three years doing the same things we are doing now, all we need is more time”. If the hidden assumption is, “my whole identity, standing and perhaps future livelihood and success is given to me by this community that I am working in”, then to take some steps that risk strong resistance by some vested interests in the community may mean that as much as the staff member is committed to the project’s success, his or her hidden assumption is a stronger driver than any genuinely held but inwardly inconsistent beliefs. When I say inwardly inconsistent , I mean not seeking to change a project, even though it is failing, may very well be much more aligned to the staff’s hidden assumption,  than to change the project and risk having some in the community withdraw their personal support.
I have often found myself telling this story of the proud king to groups of staff. My intention is that until we can say that the king is naked, or the project is broken and to see that we too have a role in this story, it is almost impossible to gain enthusiasm to make changes that may lead to better outcomes. The king’s foolishness was not his alone. There were many in the story of the king who could have spoken up early and the king would have jailed the swindlers and started again. The illusion of success was supported by the hidden assumptions of the Ministers who feared they actually were incompetent and whose hidden assumptions may have been, “I will succeed if I tell the king what he wants to hear and appear clever at all times.” If this was the hidden assumption or commitment, then telling the king the clothes were superb, against all evidence, made a kind of sense. Mostly, people understand our need to disclose program challenges but when it comes to getting to our own role in that, the path suddenly becomes steeper and rock strewn. One staff member in Eastern Europe said they were offended by the mental image of the naked king, another group in Timor was in tight agreement that the king should never have been a king in the first place and if he was so stupid why did the subjects follow him? And in neither case did we make much of an inroad to what we might choose to do differently and what this might mean for changes in behavior of the individual staff members involved.
I am convinced that to make real changes when a program is struggling, the place to start, is to find ways in which the key players can find a way to feel safe to explore and disclose their hidden operating assumptions. It is my view, that these hidden assumptions are both a product of personal worldviews and paradoxically foundational for them and, unless these change, the likelihood of significant program changes is small. From time to time I have seen this happen in individuals and as a result there have been astounding changes in the ways they do things and the results that take place. More often I have seen the negative consequences when, in spite of overwhelming evidence of the need for change, things continue the same and as king, we continue our naked march.

[i] Kegan, R. &. (2009). Immunity to Change. USA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Graphic in the public domain by Ilene Richard