29 May 2010

A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations: brief thoughts on a week in Dar

One of the challenges of basing an ambitious and innovative organisation like Daraja in Njombe is the risk of becoming disconnected from networks and discussions that take place during the coffee breaks of important meetings. I personally am very glad to be able to avoid attending so many meetings that take up so much time and often achieve very little, but sometimes there is little alternative to face-to-face contact as a way of getting things done.

So having spent most of the last week in Dar es Salaam, a week packed with meetings, presentations and a "learning cafe" (not entirely sure that this was anything other than a workshop for people who officially disapprove of workshops), what's been learned from the opportunity?

Well, the "learning cafe" was certainly the highlight of the week, with Daraja's two biggest donors represented in force and posing some very challenging questions on the role and capability of civil society in promoting accountability. Are NGOs supply- or demand-driven, responding more to the interests of donors or the community? Can we be both professional and rooted? Who would notice, who would protest if 95% of NGOs in Tanzania were shut down? Can we overcome years of institutionalised training and practice by focussing on outcomes rather than activities and outputs, perhaps taking a guide from Mourinho's planning for football matches? It might often be uncomfortable or difficult to think so critically, but it is also essential. It is only by doing so that we can find solutions to these challenges and avoid as many as possible of the pitfalls.

At the same event, we came across an unexpectedly high level of interest in Daraja's work. Even without having a high profile presence in Dar, news of our programmes has spread and interest is growing. This was most particularly related to our work with mobile phones on Maji Matone, but also on the challenges and unexpected opportunities of being based outside Dar.

There seem to be two reasons for this. First, though we ourselves are not highly active in the civil society and related networks of Dar, there are two big advocates of our work right at the centre of this community - Twaweza and DFID's AcT programme. These are both donors with a difference, and we are fortunate that both have bought into Daraja's ideas and are not just putting their money where their mouth is, but are also following that up with more mouth!

And second, our use of social networks has attracted attention. Most particularly it seems to have kept those who already knew of our work in touch with our latest news. There were several comments and questions referring to specific blog posts, as well as some general appreciation of how we are exploring the potential of social media.

The growing interest in our work brings with it a challenge: with interest comes expectations, which it may not always be possible to fulfil. Despite being based in Njombe, we have a fair few people following our progress closely, and from the position we have reached it will not be possible to fail quietly.

This might make us uncomfortable if things don't go as well as we hope, but we should see it as creating positive pressure. The best response would be to succeed, but that can't be guaranteed. The second best, to draw and share as many useful lessons as possible from the mixture of successes and failures we will almost certainly encounter. Not being able to fail quietly will actually help us to make sure lessons do get learned and shared.