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“Workshops, workshops, workshop…”: what other options are there?

Joanne Lauterjung Kelly explores alternatives to the “capacity building” obsession with workshops.

Nearly every colleague I talk to, both local and expat, complains about the current trend of capacity building equaling workshops, workshops, workshops.

Most local CVs have a longer list of workshops attended than jobs worked.

And when asked what they’ve learned, most will admit the materials went on a shelf, never to be looked at again.

This isn’t true for everyone, but it seems to be the norm rather than the exception. Then there are the times when trying to schedule a workshop in Yangon invariably conflicts with two or three other simultaneous workshops – often with very similar topics.

I would like to propose some alternative ideas for capacity building. I’m not suggesting we eliminate workshops, but perhaps improve workshop design, while at the same time considering other approaches.

Coaching/”Site Visits”

In 2014-2015 I worked on a one-year CSO strengthening project in Shan State working with 20 CSOs to improve their organizational development systems. We alternated quarterly five-day workshops with on-site visits to help CSOs integrate what they learned in the workshops.

There was resistance to the word “coaching” as some thought it meant we would come and tell them what to do. So the trips were called “site visits” and local experts (one financial management expert, and one organizational development expert) were hired to go and offer any help or support the CSOs were willing to take.

This was a time-consuming process – to visit 20 CSOs in southern, eastern and northern Shan State requires at least three weeks of travel. But in the end, CSOs received much-needed individualized support as a compliment to the workshops, and the feedback was very positive. During this process the CSOs developed 32 project ideas, and 17 were funded by international donors.

Mentorship/Job Shadowing

In recent conversations with an INGO in the US, we discussed their original idea to fund a full-time expat position and a part-time local position, and changed it to a full-time local Project Officer and a part-time expat to mentor and accompany that person.

That way the local person can take the lead with support and advice from the expat, and build their own capacity to manage projects. This approach would allow local staff to experience taking leadership while being guided from the sidelines. This may not be the perfect arrangement for everyone, but another possibility to throw into the mix.

Exposure Visits: Virtual and Real

Exposure trips get mixed reviews – some love them, and some hate them. However, if well-designed and thoughtfully implemented, immersion can be a powerful and transformative way of learning.

But it shouldn’t stop with the trip itself – preparation and follow-up are needed to help people get the most out of the experience, including coming home. As anyone knows who’s stepped out of their home culture for an extended time, it can be difficult to return with new insights gained while away.

Social media is one way to keep people connected after such a trip, and could also provide “virtual” exposure. One local NGO in Rakhine State gives music classes to both Buddhist and Muslim youth, and then brings those groups together on Facebook to post songs, share stories, and connect with one another.

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