more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

Integrated development: Embracing mission drift in rural Nigeria

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

On Monday I got the chance to hear John Dada speak. John holds a lot of wisdom, much of which cuts directly against the so-called ‘best practices’ of the development world he’s involved with. One of the key lessons I took from John’s talk? Don’t get too focused on doing one particular thing; you’ll miss what’s going on around you!

john dada and indy johar

John Dada w/ Indy Johar at Hub Westminster on Monday

“You need to cut down and focus on microfinance,” one funder told John Dada, after the Fantsuam Foundation had expanded its work into yet another previously unknown discipline in rural Nigeria.

This is typical advice from many of the ‘experts’ in the development world: ‘specialise in one thing and focus all of your energies on it.’

There’s a particular worldview that this makes perfect sense within. The jargony term this worldview assigns to organisations not heeding this advice, is ‘mission drift.’

John Dada doesn’t buy it though.

Instead, he throws an alternative approach out there, speaking at Hub Westminster on a rare UK visit on Monday evening: “No service should be allowed to stand on its own, because it wouldn’t work.”

Fantsuam Foundation has a serious case of mission drift! What began with microcredit loans in rural Nigeria, moved into local IT provision and training, HIV/AIDS clinics, affordable housing, and eventually a community-owned tractor – crowd-funded by the modestly-sized, but committed network of support that Fantsuam has built-up within and beyond Nigeria through the approach they call ‘integrated community development.’

I describe some elements of John’s work in Anarchists in the Boardroom.

Integrated community development stands-up where so many development projects fail; it doesn’t try to see social issues through the various specialised lenses our organisations like to apply to them.

John was initially trained as a nurse in the UK, but has not let that limit the work he has been involved with. Nursing can only address some of the issues faced by people living in a complex world; if John was to decide to draw clear lines around what he would and wouldn’t do to support the community he was working in, he would not have achieved a fraction of what his organisation has been able to do.

What I took away from hearing him speak on Monday, is the importance of relationships; that building and maintaining trusting connections with people is far more important than many of the specific skill sets involved. We can often learn new skills more easily than we can build new meaningful relationships.

Thus the mission drift: when you’ve built up strong relationships in a community, you can’t just farm people out to another ‘service provider’ and expect them to pick up where you left off.

I remember working at the Scarman Trust a number of years ago, supporting people who had set-up small-scale community projects around London, but who had come to the end of the small grants (usually about £1,500) the organisation had given them. I’d usually done workshops with them for several months, met with them one-to-one, helped them with everything from keeping receipts in order and finding venues to hire, to figuring out what they wanted to do next.

Often, near the end of their grants, I’d end up referring them to one of a handful of other organisations – sometimes funders, sometimes other local groups in their areas. Some people were fine with this, but others were offended. Most ignored the referrals, no matter how much specialist expertise these folks I was trying to put them in touch with had.

One woman put it to me very succinctly: ‘Why do we have to talk to them? We want to keep talking with you. We know you. We don’t want to go to someone else.’

I don’t mention this as a particular endorsement of my own work, but as an indication of the centrality of relationships.

Only in certain professional settings do we seem to forget this; we tell ourselves that we can pass people around, between professionals, services, departments, organisations, without this affecting the people themselves, their health, their trust, their level of engagement, their openness, their commitment to working with us… If we’re not careful, people, churned through so many services, become passive, hand-me-down ‘beneficiaries,’ as uncommitted to engaging with us, as our ways of working suggest we are to engaging with them.

Fantsuam’s work keeps relationships at the core of what it does, adapting services and projects, and learning the skills needed to address the needs of the community, with those in the community itself. This may all seem incredibly inefficient to some of you, but I’m certain that the real inefficiency lies in our attempts to wedge people into services that don’t respect the importance of the relationships we so-flippantly bounce them between, with little regard for what someone invests in opening themselves up to someone else.

And because John and Fantsuam pay attention to people and relationships, one can never say too far in advance, what their next project might be. The community will make that clear though. For many years it has continued to do so. The work emerges to fit the needs of the people involved, which are never as fixed as the business plans we write often make them out to be!

Maybe our organisations would be better off if they could embrace a bit of mission drift and follow the winding road of the real world, rather than the linear trajectory plotted out on a piece of paper so long before?

—————–

Chapter 8 of Anarchists in the Boardroom explores more of John’s story, in relation to complexity and our organisational obsession with fortune telling (often disguised as ‘strategy writing’). Feel free to order a copy.

4 comments

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.