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Lessons from Kampala on Reflexivity in Development Practice

YasmineKherfi20 July 2018

The international field trip is an integral component of the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). After months of desk-based research in London, our cohort traveled to Kampala, Uganda, to understand how development initiatives are formulated and implemented in a specific context.

DAP students visiting the Decent Living Project, supported by the Shelter and Settlement Alternatives.

 

What is “the field”?

Before embarking on our trip, we were challenged to question our assumptions and conceptions of “the field”. While the term in itself is a construction rooted in anthropology, sites of fieldwork largely remain overlooked and taken for granted in the discipline’s methodology and practice (Gupta & Ferguson, 2013). Similarly, the way we come to know “the field” remains under-researched and seldom questioned in literature on international fieldtrips (Patel, 2015). Our group reflections stemmed from a pedagogical need to address the lack of attention given to dominant narratives that underpin fieldwork research. In much of the literature on fieldtrips specifically, “the field” is still evoked through an orientalist lens, as a place designed “to produce exotic encounters” to maximize students’ learning experience (Patel, 2015).

 

While students and researchers are temporarily interjected in “the field”, frequently treating it as a neutral place, we should not disregard its politics, history and context, in our quest to find answers (Patel, 2015). Given the thematic focus of development programmes, fieldtrips inevitably introduce students to development initiatives that address social inequalities, which often involve working with vulnerable and marginalized communities (Patel, 2015). For practitioners committed to ‘development’ fieldwork, it is important to understand the different power structures and dynamics in the local context, as well those that stem from the history of fieldwork practice. Our module ‘Development in Practice’ served as a space for collective inquiry on our positionality, research ethics, as well as assumptions, stereotypes, and behavior that we wanted to avoid perpetuating. The assigned readings and conversations with peers also prompted me to reflect on the different kinds of institutional partnerships in the field of development.

 

DAP students walking during the city orientation tour, in Kampala.

 

Team Work Experience

Our class was divided into seven groups, each focused on learning from a specific initiative implemented by an NGO or CBO in Kampala. Our team partnered with Action for Community Development – Uganda (ACODEV-U), a CBO that focuses on community empowerment through a wide range of programmes. We chose to learn from ACODEV’s comprehensive adolescent sexuality education project, ‘Keep It Real’ (KIR), which ran from 2013 to 2015, and addressed the lack of reliable information on sexual and reproductive rights.

 

Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world. Our group was curious about the different pedagogical approaches available to support Kampala’s youth in accessing information about sexual health. I also wanted to learn more about the ‘projectification’ of public health in the field of development, considering the relationship between foreign aid and the country’s management of health epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS. Overall, ideas about public health, development, and planning, fermented in my head during the trip, and what I learned in Kampala helped inspire my dissertation topic. I benefited from evening lectures delivered by development practitioners and academics, and gained important insights from Peter Kasaija, a researcher at the Urban Action Lab of Makerere University, who supported us throughout the trip.

 

We conducted interviews with different project stakeholders and beneficiaries, who drew attention to the strengths and weaknesses of KIR’s implementation, with school students and out-of-school youth. Interviewees included a teacher from the Old Kampala Secondary School, current and former ACODEV employees, as well as staff members of SOMERO, a youth community centre located in the neighborhood of Bwaise in Kawempe. Interviewees welcomed us to their respective work spaces, and explained different aspects of their experience with KIR. They addressed the impact of various power dynamics on the transfer of knowledge between different actors involved in the project, the difficulties in maintaining KIR’s sustainability, as well as challenges that arose from intra-organisational structures. Fieldwork did not always go as planned, and we did not get the chance to meet everyone we wanted to interview. This experience taught us how to adjust our plans and expectations, given our time limitations.

Our team with ACODEV staff members.

 

After working with my team members intermittently in London, and daily throughout the trip, we became more open and comfortable with each other. We were able to constructively voice disagreement, frustrations, as well as share and reflect on personal and collective moments experienced during the trip. The conversations I had with teammates sometimes related back to how we navigate our privilege as students coming from the United Kingdom, and explored how we made sense of our multi-layered identities in relation to the new geographic context we were in.

The Role of Reflexivity in Development Practice

 

I was committed to documenting my reflections every day in the fieldwork diary, in an attempt to bear the fruits of radical vulnerability; “to write vulnerably in the service of creating new understandings” that would ultimately benefit me and the people I interact with (Norander, 2017). This personal assignment required us to engage in reflexive practice – a mental exercise that operates on two levels, in which the person writing is the unit of analysis (Cunliffe, 2016). First, the exercise corresponds to the process of examining our assumptions, actions, and feelings that social interactions prompt in us (Cunliffe, 2016). Secondly, the practice requires us to think critically about the broader structures of power and knowledge that inform how we think (Cunliffe, 2016). Most importantly, critical reflexivity is characterized by a relational understanding of the self –the ways in which I not only relate to others, but also how others relate to me (Cunliffe, 2009). It is an exploration of the implications of this two-way process (Cunliffe, 2009).

 

While often overlooked, reflexivity ought to play an integral part in research, and should be foregrounded in development practice. It helped me gain a deeper understanding of team dynamics throughout my group project, as well as the importance of effectively deconstructing the mystique of “the field”. I learned how to be more proactive in questioning my assumptions, and adjusting my behavior accordingly. While no one is immune to mistakes, reflexive practice allows us to better account for our positionality and strive towards a higher caliber of research quality and integrity.

 

References:

Cunliffe, A.L., 2016. “On Becoming a Critically Reflexive Practitioner” Redux. Journal of

Management Education, 40(6), pp.740–746.

 

Cunliffe, A.L., 2009. The Philosopher Leader: On Relationalism, Ethics and Reflexivity—A

Critical Perspective to Teaching Leadership. Management Learning, 40(1), pp.87–101.

 

Gupta, A. & Ferguson, D., 2013. Discipline and practice: “the field” as site, method and location in anthropology. Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, 6, pp.3–44.

 

Norander, S. 2017. Embodied moments: revisiting the field and writing vulnerably. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 45(3), pp.346–351.

 

Patel, K. 2015. Teaching and Learning in the Tropics: An Epistemic Exploration of “the Field” in a Development Studies Field Trip. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 39(4), pp.584–594.

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Yasmine Kherfi is a Master’s candidate in Development Administration and Planning, at the Development Planning Unit. She holds a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction from the University of Toronto, and is a recipient of the Bartlett’s Refugee Cities Dissertation Fellowship at UCL. Her current research looks at the adaptation of systems of health governance to protracted displacement.

 

 

Power and Politics: A reflection on political settlement

MichaelWalls11 April 2016

To many – perhaps more today than in some generations past – ‘politics’ is a dirty word. Yet the political permeates our social lives on the most personal of levels as well as more generally. And the twin sibling of politics is power; specifically it’s exercise and pursuit. Perhaps the thing that most upsets many of us about ‘politics’ is what we perceive as the naked or covert use of power for personal betterment. But there’s a complication there. As much as we tend to presume that unbalanced power is a bad thing, the reality is that the stability of human societies through history and around the globe rests on just such imbalances. And personal interest occupies an uneasy yet always central motivator in the exercise of that power. In some ways, it is hard to even conceive of power in terms other than in some unbalanced sense. After all, if one person possesses the ability to compel someone else to do something, then that represents an imbalance in itself. There’d be no compulsion if the person compelled didn’t accept the authority of the other. Which highlights the difficult balance we need to try and find as human societies if we are to balance some sense of social justice with the sort of systemic efficacy we must aspire to if our states are to be run with reasonable efficiency.

Political leaders sign an agreement on voter registration, Hargeisa

Political leaders sign an agreement on voter registration, Hargeisa

The idea of the ‘political settlement’ that lies behind this project encourages examination of the nature of those balances in the political realm.

But we can also think of power in different ways. The sense of power as an imbalance in which one person can compel another, which I’ve just described, is what Andrea Cornwall and John Gaventa called ‘power over’. But we also sometimes think of power in different terms. For example, the power to do something is usually more about the capacity we have to act, and we sometimes also talk about ‘inner’ strength; the power we gain from within ourselves. Not quite the same as the capacity to do something because it refers more to strength of character or resolve, but that can connect with capacity as well. There is also a sense of power that labour unions, amongst others, have often used: the power of unity or solidarity. The power we gain by working together with others of like mind.

Focus group meeting in Laas Aanood

Focus group meeting in Laas Aanood

The ‘Political Settlement in Somaliland‘ research project is designed to dig deeper into some of the attitudes that women and men have to each other’s political engagement, and to find out more about how those attitudes are reflected in the ‘political settlement’ that underpins what has become an enduring peace in Somaliland. In so doing, we will be thinking hard about how different kinds of power are exercised by women and men in Somaliland: both in the negotiations, debates and decisions that form the political settlement, and in the actions people take or have taken in an effort to influence those decisions.

It is axiomatic that one of the most persistently asymmetrical balances of power is where it relates to the roles of men and women in a society. A growing body of research has focused on Somali state-building, and particularly on Somaliland, and there have been a number of studies on gender roles in that context. We are aiming to explore the ideas at the intersection of those concerns by trying to understand more about the assumptions and positions that shape social relations for men and women. That links strongly to a number of specific areas, including violence against women and girls, which seems to have worsened even while stability has been consolidated.

We are still in the relatively early days of the research, and are currently collecting primary data. There’ll be numerous updates of one sort or another. Keep an eye on the research microsite for new material.

drawing water for camels from a well, Sanaag

Drawing water for camels from a well, Sanaag


Dr. Michael Walls is a Senior Lecturer at UCL’s Development Planning Unit (DPU) and Course Director for the MSc in Development Administration and Planning. He has twelve years’ experience in senior management in the private sector and lectures in ‘market-led approaches to development’. For some thirteen years he has focused on the Somali Horn of Africa, and most particularly on the evolving political settlements in Somaliland and Puntland. He is currently leading a research project focused on developing a gendered perspective on Somaliland’s political settlement. As well as undertaking research on state formation and political representation, he has been a part of the coordination team for international election observations to Somaliland elections in 2005, 2010 and 2012 and is currently observing the 2016 Voter Registration process. 

MILEAD Fellows: Exemplifying Feminist Leadership at the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women

AshleyHernandez6 April 2016

On March 16th, 2016, when I arrived at my first event for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations headquarters in New York, I realized something very profound. As a social development practitioner, this is one of the few times I’ve experienced young African women as the primary narrators of issues affecting African women and girls in their countries and communities.

Moremi_pic_1

MILEAD Fellows after their panel for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations

The Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa (Moremi Initiative) hosted the session entitled “Enhancing Young Women’s Voices for Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Development: A Multi-generational Dialogue with Emerging African Women Leaders”. As the girls on the panel presented, the aim and the focus of the Moremi Initiative became clear to me. The organization “strives to engage, inspire and equip young women and girls to become the next generation of leading politicians, activists, social entrepreneurs and change agents”. This is achieved through the MILEAD fellowship (Moremi Initiative Leadership and Empowerment Development), which selects young women ages 19-25 from various African countries and the Diaspora to sharpen their leadership skills via trainings, mentorship, networking and resource mobilization. The twenty fellows showcase members of different cohorts from 2009-2015, and represent more than 15 countries attracting a wide audience including 2011 Nobel Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee who supports the organization and provides mentorship to the fellows.

While reflecting on this experience, I had a strong sense that an essential ingredient in successfully bolstering African women and girls as change agents is the organization’s emphasis on transformative, feminist leadership. So, I had to ask myself, “what defines this kind of leadership, anyway”? My definition is derived from authors like Srilatha Batliwala (Batliwala, 2010), who believe that it requires engagement with power, politics and values. I will now outline the ways in which I believe the Moremi Initiative cultivates this type of leadership.

Moremi_pic_3

MILEAD Fellows celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala

 

  1. Moremi, Power and Politics

On the surface, Moremi Initiative may appear to be another leadership program. Yet, what makes it formidable is that it is not soliciting African women’s participation in predefined projects affecting them and their communities. Instead the organization acknowledges that African women and girls hold the solutions and must define and set their own agendas. To this end, Moremi Initiative equips fellows with the tools, resources and the space to negotiate their own narratives’ and set the agenda for social change in their regions, countries and communities. Fellows get connected to powerful institutions while being provided with a dynamic support network and training to chart their course as emerging leaders. With these new skills, fellows are able to effectively articulate and advocate for the issues that affect them, their peers and women and girls broadly. One of the fellows who spoke at the CSW event identified this as one of the most important components of the program. Elizabeth Jarvase from South Sudan explains, “After joining the Moremi Initiative, I have represented South Sudan more than three times internationally, simply because ‘Moremi’ gives young African women space to develop and grow; it creates opportunities, and it provides the tools and skills needed to focus and advocate for our different causes with passion and integrity”. One of my favorites moments at the panel entailed Elizabeth putting forth a discussion on the human rights abuses related to the current civil war in South Sudan. She then eloquently asked the audience to reflect on how we can use our knowledge, abilities and power to end the suffering of women and children in this crisis.

 

  1. Moremi, Politics and Value: embedding women’s empowerment in social justice

One of the aspects I revere the most about the Moremi Initiative is the way in which feminism is treated as an integral part of social justice work in Africa. After one of the MILEAD trainings, a fellow reflected, “I also got enlightened on the term feminism which interested me a lot because of its concepts. I also got to know that it is a very good term, and in my own understanding I have come to define feminism as having equal rights and opportunities between men and women” (Winnie, 2015). Many of the girls in the program come from diverse backgrounds and advocate for an array of issues ranging from youth empowerment to clean water, not all are overtly related to gender. Yet the choice to introduce and engage with definitions of feminism is both political and indicative of a value that upholds gender equity. I believe this is essential to achieving a type of leadership that places African women at the forefront of social change.

Moremi_pic_2

MILEAD Fellows with Moiyattu Banya, host and volunteer AWDF USA board member, celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala.

 

  1. Moremi: creating resilient leadership and values through inter-generational mentoring

Another objective of the MILEAD program is to “build intra and inter-generational solidarity that cuts through borders”. I witnessed this while attending the 15th anniversary gala celebrating the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and it was magnetic to see the confluence of generations in the same space. Described as being “at the forefront of the African women’s movement, AWDF supports the work of African women’s organizations and activists throughout the continent” (Siyonbola, 2016). The organization boosts of a dynamic and pan-African network, which is why Moremi Initiative prioritizes bringing fellows into these spaces to ensure the building of bridges across generations. This not only maintains the legacy of African women’s leadership, but also engenders the emergence of fresh new ideas and issues from younger generations.

I want to conclude this reflection from a place rooted in my own personal history and experience. I am a non-African woman, raised in the United States. As an ally, I believe one of the best ways I can support the Moremi Initiative is nurture deeper relationships and leverage opportunities to grow, and acquire relevant knowledge and skills about Africa, women and girls. When all is said and done, for me it is important to always be conscious that this platform is ultimately about the voices and decision-making of African women and girls.

After all, this is what moved me most about the Moremi Initiative’s participation at the 60th session of CSW: many individuals, including allies, partner organizations and donors aided in getting the fellows to New York. Yet the stories heard in the room that morning — the topics of discussion — were all determined and articulated by bold, visionary, resilient and emerging young African women leaders.

More information on Moremi Initiative can be found on their website, and you can also check out their Facebook page.

 

References:

Batliwala, S. (2010) Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation: Clearing the Conceptual Cloud. Crea-Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action. Available at: https://www.justassociates.org/sites/justassociates.org/files/feminist-leadership-clearing-conceptual-cloud-srilatha-batliwala.pdf

Winnie, N. (2015) Winnienansumba. [Blog] World Press. Available at: https://winnienansumba.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/24/.

Siyonbola, O. (2016) Incredible Women Don’t Just Happen: AWDF’s 15th Anniversary. Applause Africa. Available at: http://applauseafrica.com/2016/03/18/incredible-women-dont-just-happen-awdfs-15th-anniversary/


Ashley Hernandez is an SDP graduate who is passionate about gender equity.  She is currently working with Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa and volunteered with the African Women’s Development Fund USA for their 15th Anniversary Gala.