Know those great massages… perhaps like your wife gives you after a hard day of sport. Its slow, gentle and deep. Working away at your body it somehow touches your soul. You rediscover muscles you never knew you had. You are totally part of the process and you finish feeling relaxed and refreshed. Ready to play again. That is my metaphor for an Outcome Harvest (OH) - slow, gentle and deep. A relearning process. Something that refreshes a project to re-enter its context. And its participatory- evaluators, project and participants fully involved from start to finish.
I just did on OH in Cambodia. One morning Mariam (my translator) and I went to a village in Kampong Speu. The project manager introduced us to the village leader, saying he was a useful person to speak to. But he did not have a bed for us to sit on. Mariam and I said we were quite OK to sit anywhere or even stand but, perhaps ashamed that he could not be properly hospitable, he politely suggested we come back another day.
So we just walked around the village finding a group of children playing a game with stones and slippers. I joined in. Some men and women under a nearby house called us over. We started a conversation. Not interrogation. They told us about changes in the village, about how most of the young women now got into trucks each morning, are driven to the city and spend their days in factories there. They return too tired to cook, so buy food from restaurants feed their families and put children they have not seen all day to bed. .
“They don’t want to leave their children, but they get $190 or more a month” said one man“so they go”
Ah,,,the human impact of transitioning to a cash economy. Deep changes in societal structure, culture perhaps, emerging as we listened.
Some left the group, others joined… Mariam and I continued. Conversing gently. They talked of a community action to build a bridge, about what schooling was like, about the old days when they hunted in their forest, about young men from their village migrating for work as loggers in other parts of the country and coming back with malaria… Conversation touched some topics and ebbed away, flowed fully around others and lingered.… Time passed. We listened.
Then they invited us to “Come and see our pond”
We walked towards the village pond discussing how it had been dug, how the pond committee worked, who had rights to fish and wash in it. On the way we passed yards where logs of fine tropical hardwood lay tragic as harpooned whales, and new tractors shone in the sun. Now we were feeling the community's very body, contours deep under its skin.
After talking beside the pond for a while they took us to the edge of the village, pointed to the forested hills and told us about the company which bribed them with a road then took and fenced off their ancestral forest. They revealed their shame in knowing they were being tricked but accepting the road anyway. Touching deep wounds now. We felt the tension between a forest on hills and money in their hands, the palpable pain in their children never being able to hunt as they had…
They talked of hope and powerlessness, about having no faith in the government, about what their real issues were, how they felt about the other NGO that was addressing forest issues while the NGO we were evaluating was only helping with income. They came back with pride to their community action to build a bridge together. Deep stuff. We listened, under a now torpid Cambodian sun.
A motorbike with a freezer sidecar came up, musical horn blaring. I bought everyone ice-creams. Cool and good, the flavour of shared time. Mariam started picking up the wrappers the men had dropped. They shamefacedly said “We should do that but we have lost sight, stopped caring for our place”
Another man came up, on a motorbike with a walkie-talkie- a community volunteer for the social forestry NGO.
“What’s going on ?” he asked.
They told him “these two want to know about our village and our forest.” Conversation eddied around by itself, settling on whether a collective protest about their forest was really possible.
We checked the time. One o’clock. We had arranged to be picked up at one. Our whole evaluation morning had evaporated in one unplanned conversation that had flowed and separated and rejoined like a braided river. Contributors joined, others left. We’d touched on schools and roads and hunting and forests and women working in factories and collective action and fishing and government and more. No specific conclusions. Lots of ideas. Like a tropical river heavy with silt the conversation was laden with feeling, hope and powerlessness and pride and disempowerment, and shame, and an uneasy perception of new world happening to them was all somehow mixed into the flow. A rich picture of the kind of dynamic in which our NGOs rural Cambodian villages are placed had emerged over four slow hours.
Tremendously worthwhile, this conversation might never have happened if our original, planned interviewee had a bed. But it did happen. With hundreds of other stories (collected with NGO Staff and community members) and qualitative analysis software we put 917 outcome stories together building up a mosaic of Cambodian village life amidst bigger forces and found places for a piece the shape of our NGO to fit in.
It was a really worthwhile evaluation. Deep, slow and gentle. As participatory and re-energising as a good massage.
This evaluation is written up as a 'nugget' on the Outcome Mapping Learning Community website: