MaFI Quick Chat #3: Journey to Facilitation with Eric Derks

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An informal conversation with MaFI member Eric Derks about his experiences helping development organisations move away from direct delivery of services and inputs and into facilitation approaches.

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MaFI Quick Chat #3: Journey to Facilitation with Eric Derks

  1. 1. MaFI - The Market Facilitation Initiative Journey to Facilitation: helping development organisations to adopt facilitation approaches Quick Chat #3 with MaFI member Eric Derks1 This Quick Chat is mainly focused on Eric’s experiences in Bolivia, supporting actors in the dairy and fresh fruit value chains to undertake such transition. However, Eric also draws on his experience in other countries such as Serbia, Mongolia, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Lucho Osorio2 : What are the main challenges that you have faced in trying to convince development organisations (let’s call them NGOs as a shortcut) to shift from direct service and inputs provision to facilitation approaches? Eric Derks: Inadequate knowledge and experience of facilitative approaches is perhaps the most significant hurdle, but by no means the only one. The skills of development practitioners providing direct services to target groups (farmers, small-holders, etc.) are very different than the skills required for facilitation. One key difference is that facilitation places the practitioner in a different relation with the market actors. Another is that facilitation asks that practitioners strive to promote other, commercial actors, to engage in supportive relations with the target groups and not jump in and do it themselves. Lucho: I think this is very interesting and I agree with you. I would say that the attitudinal dimension is critical. Not just knowledge and skills. Though, I think that they are interdependent. What do you normally do to start challenging those attitudes at the very beginning? How do you start; who do you talk to; what types of meetings/workshops you promote; what tools you use, etc... Eric: The first thing is to challenge the sustainability of impacts (the outcomes of the project) generated through the direct provision of services. Lucho: And how do you do that? Do you bring stories of success and failure related to this? Eric: This can be a conceptual exercise that can be related back quickly to people's experiences. There are a host of stories about how direct provision, when it ceased, the impacts achieved dematerialized or the benefits to the target group actually worsened. It's also a logical argument. "If producers' access to markets is an on-going issue, then if a project with a short-term involvement fills this role, how can it be expected that producers will continue to have this access? 1 MaFI Chats are done via Skype chat (SMS). At the time of this interview (July 2009) Eric was working for Action for Enterprise (AFE). To know more about Eric, see his LinkedIn profile at http://www.linkedin.com/in/ericderks 2 Lucho Osorio is the Facilitator of MaFI and the International Coordinator of the Markets and Livelihoods Program at Practical Action. MaFI is a working group of The SEEP Network (www.seepnetwork.org) 1
  2. 2. Lucho: Hmmm. So, you use three techniques: making people connect with their own experiences; presenting cases from other organisations; and building with people a logical (common sense) argument. Is this correct? Eric: That's a pretty good summary of this step. From this examination of certain weaknesses of direct provision approaches, it's then important to explore and discuss alternatives, which can begin in a workshop setting and proceed, ideally, towards application as in conducting program design, developing activity plans that better reflect facilitation approaches, etc. Lucho: What you mention gives me the idea that convincing people of the benefits of a facilitating approach is not that difficult. However, there is in practice a great inertia against change. Is this mainly related to organisational factors? Eric: Ah… the other factors. In addition to organisational factors, I would include performance measurement and donor support. Of course organisational factors alone are fairly broad so I'll let you ask the questions! Lucho: It is a complex issue - with too many factors making synergy… Eric: Breaking down or unpacking the organisational factors to consider I'd itemize them as: i) organisational structure of the project in implementation ii) the skill sets and job descriptions of personnel Lucho: What I want to establish before we move on is: from your experience, how hard has it been for you to convince people that moving into a facilitation approach is better than continuing to behave as a direct service provider (at least at the conceptual level)? Eric: It can prove difficult and I would point to several areas where people distrust the facilitative approach: 1. Distrust that facilitative approaches will yield results comparable to those achieved in direct provision 2. Distrust of market actors to enter into relations with targeted producers in an acceptable manner and provide the types of services that producers lack 3. Difficulty of practitioners to envision their role and value to a project as a facilitator instead of a provider of direct services, which is very satisfying (understandably) 4. Anxiousness about disappointing or displeasing target producers with whom practitioners have developed a rapport and certain expectations Lucho: Very interesting. I think that, for point 1 there is a challenge in terms of the causation mechanisms (direct provision being more clear and linear than the cause-effect mechanisms of facilitation, which are more indirect, less predictable and less tangible). For point 2, I think that the issue of moving from a protective approach (the “nanny” NGO) into an empowerment approach where marginalised producers defend themselves is key. Point 3 is a more abstract one; very closely related to attitudes. But I think the only solution here is learning through experience that a facilitator role can also be satisfying and even more meaningful in terms of scale and sustainability of poverty reduction. 2
  3. 3. Eric: I think it's also key in moving away from the “nanny approach” to recognise that our target beneficiaries are part of a much larger system and that they will not all succeed or thrive. In market systems, businesses come into existence and go out, what is important that the trajectory of change promoted by the development practitioner pulls more people into it than it spits out and that it's on a course where actors can increase their competitiveness and growth without outside assistance. Lucho: For point 4, I think there is a very interesting issue of power and social relations when staff work for a long time in the same locations. This may block their ability to let go... a very complicated issue indeed that relates to the strategies or policies of NGOs in terms of length and depth of presence in a given place. No need to respond to my comments but if you want to share any insight or criticise them, it would make my day! Eric: I agree with your comments on point 3 but would add that in the management field, one impediment to successful change or transitions within companies is that there is minimal resistance and good buy-in from people involved or implicated. Lucho: Especially buy in from senior staff - or do you think buy in from field staff can influence senior staff and high level strategies or policies within the NGO? Eric: Senior staff play a critical role in crafting performance indicators and holding front line managers and field personnel accountable to them. As such, they too, as you note, need to buy- in to facilitative approaches and provide the support and "stickiness" necessary. Lucho: I understand, but in order to break the vicious circle... where do you normally start? Or there are no recipes as usual? Who do you convince first? Eric: Donors? As performance incentives and indicators of success emanate mainly from here. Lucho: Aha! Now you are getting into dangerous territory!!! Eric: From experience, I've worked mostly with front-line staff. I think I have not been as successful in my activities as I would like because it's hard to include senior people in the time- consuming activities of program design, etc. I think perhaps that different support mechanisms need to be developed that would allow senior as well as front-line personnel to undertake the transition together. Which brings us back to donors: if the incentive structure changed to push the transition, then...Yes; dangerous territory, but... Lucho: Now, I want to ask you about your experiences in terms of subsidies... Eric: I don't get enough of them! 3
  4. 4. Lucho: It is true that we need to move to a facilitation approach but in some cases we need to unlock the system using "smart" subsidies. How do people react to this idea or how do they see the issue of subsidies according to your experience? Eric: Subsidies are essential to the facilitative approach. They are the carrot and stick, the main tool of the project. With people I work with, I describe them as the lever to cajole, encourage, support, etc. businesses to engage in a new, innovative practices that aims to increase growth, competitiveness and greater inclusion of target groups. For example: a business investing in training its farmer and suppliers. The challenge I often see is that projects squander this tool by misapplying the subsidy on unworthy businesses. Some strategy should be in place for deciding who merits support from subsidy and who doesn't. Lucho: Especially because subsidies give power to those in charge to decide how they are used and who they should be given to. Eric: Exactly. Lucho: How do people in development organisations react to the way you explain subsidies? Do they take that idea on board? Eric: When reactions are strongly against this idea, they centre on unwillingness to use these funds to the direct benefit of fairly, or relatively well-off businesses (i.e. not the target group). Lucho: I have seen the same thing! This is linked to the lack of systemic thinking! Eric: Yes, good point. Lucho: Nanny NGOs cannot see beyond "their" communities... Finally... what would you say are the key principles for "smart" subsidies? Say, your top 3. Eric: 1. Strategic selection of beneficiaries of the subsidy 2. MOUs with company/beneficiaries as to how the subsidies are to be used and what the contribution/responsibility of the company is 3. No dependencies are created regardless of where or with whom they are used Lucho: Any final reflections or additional points before we finish? Eric: Only to say congratulations to you and MaFI for putting this together and leading such a thoughtful discussion. You're on to something here (this process) and I'm glad to have contributed. Looking forward to more. 4
  5. 5. Attachment Fragments from an email from Eric dated 28-04-2009 (in preparation for the Quick Chat) Organisations face, at least four challenges when they try to move from direct provision of assistance to target MSMEs (micro-enterprises, producers, etc.) to facilitation of commercial relationships within value chains: 1. Inadequate knowledge and experience of facilitative approaches that would equip senior managers, project leaders and front-line staff with the ability to: • recognise and promote opportunities for facilitating stronger inter-firm relations based on the commercial incentives of market actors • identify, select and structure collaborative relations with value chain actors who have incentives to invest in mutually supportive relations with target MSMEs • plan successive project activities, which often requires an ability to respond to a variety of intended and unintended outcomes of discrete activities 2. Organisational or project management structures: • project staff sizes tend to be numerous and staff are often deployed to be in close proximity to target MSMEs, which has several potentially disadvantageous consequences, such as: o continued reliance and expectation of MSMEs on project support and o distortion of opportunities for other value chain actors to invest in support to target MSMEs as a means of developing a reliable base of suppliers • organisational structures tend to be top-down with information and directives flowing to front-line staff with inadequate flow of information from field staff about how market actors are reacting to interventions in order to improve or modify activities • performance indicators tend to focus primarily on impacts on MSMEs and/or target populations with few indicators of the sustainability of commercial relations between value chain actors and target MSMEs • many projects have difficulty incorporating flexibility into project planning to adjust to unintended outcomes of activities, new opportunities and new learning (which is seldom complete at the time of project design) 3. Resistance to change: Transitioning from direct provision of inputs and services to MSMEs into facilitative approaches is sometimes a radical change for development practitioners. Some of the factors that may harden a practitioner's resistance include: 5
  6. 6. • distrust of market actors to: o enter into relations with targeted MSMEs in an acceptable manner and o provide MSMEs with the assistance or support that the development organisation deems necessary or that it thinks it can do better • distrust that facilitative approaches will yield results comparable to those of direct provision of services to target MSMEs • inability of development practitioners to envision their place and value in a new project strategy, which is exacerbated should practitioners lack the ability to plan and implement facilitative activities and should project management not adequately revise and articulate the new roles and responsibilities of staff • anxiety about disappointing or displeasing target MSMEs (and other stakeholders) with whom a relationship has already been established by shifting the primary role of practitioners from working with MSMEs to collaborating more closely with other value chain actors 6
  7. 7. • distrust of market actors to: o enter into relations with targeted MSMEs in an acceptable manner and o provide MSMEs with the assistance or support that the development organisation deems necessary or that it thinks it can do better • distrust that facilitative approaches will yield results comparable to those of direct provision of services to target MSMEs • inability of development practitioners to envision their place and value in a new project strategy, which is exacerbated should practitioners lack the ability to plan and implement facilitative activities and should project management not adequately revise and articulate the new roles and responsibilities of staff • anxiety about disappointing or displeasing target MSMEs (and other stakeholders) with whom a relationship has already been established by shifting the primary role of practitioners from working with MSMEs to collaborating more closely with other value chain actors 6

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