What difference do we make?
What difference do we make?
In the spirit of working-out-loud (and learning-out-loud), I will repurpose this weekly email and start sharing thoughts, reflections, ideas, sketches from my new job. Depending on whether this will lead to people unsubscribing en masse or, indeed, more people subscribing (please share with colleagues if you like what you read), I will then decide if I should move my writing to another platform or not.
Also, I’m trying to use as plain language as I can, trying not to use terms that carry the heaving baggage of being defined in different contradicting ways - this in itself is an experiment and I’m curious what you think of how well I’m doing with that. And how helpful or distracting it is.
To start, I need to give some context.
In very few words, my job is to enable the organisation to understand what difference we make, to whom and how we make this difference, and how we can improve what we are doing (so we can make an even greater or more meaningful difference). We call this strategic learning and evaluation.
Without going into much detail on the different ways we engage with the world, the main thing we do is to fund organisations to implement programmes and projects (where a programme is a collection of projects). The change we want to see in turn is an improvement in the wellbeing of young people in low and middle income countries. We thereby like projects that test technological and digital solutions, including artificial intelligence, but we are also aware of the risks digital technologies can pose to young people. Also, we have a bias towards working in urban environments, as this is where most young people live these days.
This improvement in young people’s wellbeing of course depends on much more than us funding the right organisations to do their work - we see what we do as a contribution to what is hopefully a movement towards being more aware of and responsive to young people’s needs. Wellbeing depends on loads of different factors. This is why we are adopting what we call a relational approach to wellbeing. This means that we are working with others rather than merely through others – particularly those who are close to the young people. This in turn means that the difference we see in young people’s wellbeing, even if we can trace it back to activities we funded, is at least as much our partners’ as it is ours.
The intricacy of the aim to improve young people’s wellbeing also means that we cannot define measurable objectives and targets in advance as there are multiple ways improved wellbeing can look like (and it might look different for a young person in Vietnam than it does to one in Tanzania) and the steps that allow for these improvements vary. Also, we don’t know how long it takes to get there. Indeed, I don’t think there is something like an ‘end goal’ really, as the wellbeing of young people is something that is in a way a response to what is going in around the young people. And what is going on around young people is not static. Again a reason to adopt a relational approach to wellbeing - we are not directly changing individual young people’s lives but we try to bring awareness of young people’s needs to the people who shape young people’s lives (and yes, of course that includes young people themselves).
At the same time, there are agreed on metrics from academia that allow us to measure the wellbeing of young people. So one element of our planned strategic learning and evaluation framework is to select some areas in which we work and measure changes in young people’s wellbeing over time.
The second element is a database with evidence created by young people, our partners, and through studies and evaluations we commission. The database would allow us to collect different types of evidence, including stories from young people sharing their own lived experience. The evidence will be presented in different ways that allow for different groups of people (incl. young people, our partners, our office team, and our board) to come together and make sense of it - essentially jointly answering the question what difference we make and what we can adapt in our work to improve. In contrast to the first element, the evidence in the database would not only be concerned directly with young people’s wellbeing, but also with how factors change that determine young people’s wellbeing (like for example access to health care) - or even how actors change that can influence these factors (like for example local governments of cities we work in).
The third element would be about bringing people from our organisation physically close to ‘the action’. It is about embodied exposure to the realities where the difference we make is most clearly felt. One of our partners calls this ‘moving from about-ness to with-ness’ – we want not only to talk about the change but also be with the change and sense it ourselves. In a way, we ‘re-entangle’ the evidence with the reality of the context.
This is all underpinned by a set of learning and feedback loops that include my colleagues, our partners, and young people. But that I’ll write about later. Enough for today. Just to mention that we are very early on in this thinking and much will probably change while we turn these ideas into practical processes.
Let me know what you think. Just reply to this message.
The Paper Museum
I also intend to take up the Paper Museum again, sharing snippets of texts I’m reading that resonated with me. I found a clip that I prepared for an email last year that I ended up not sending. So here from Ursula Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore:
Presently the mage said, speaking softly, ‘Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted the earth is lighter, the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends. The winds and seas, the powers of water and earth and light, all that these do, and all that the beasts and green things do, is well done, and rightly done. All these act within the Equilibrium. From the hurricane and the great whale’s sounding to the fall of a dry leaf and the gnat’s flight, all they do is done within the balance of the whole. But we, in so far as we have power over the world and over one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature. We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility. Who am I - though I have the power to do it - to punish and reward, playing with men’s destinies?
‘But then,’ the boy said, frowning at the stars, ‘is the balance to be kept by doing nothing? Surely a man must act, even not knowing all the consequences of his act, if anything is to be done at all?’
‘Never fear. It is much easier for men to act than to refrain from acting. We will continue to do good, and to do evil … But if there were a king over us all again, and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: My lord, do nothing because it is righteous, or praiseworthy, or noble, to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do, and which you cannot do in any other way.’
Why have I added this to my Paper Museum? The snippet beautifully talks about how everything is connected to everything else and how every act of ours has consequences we could not even imagine - the smallest action we take has consequences for everything else.
Here’s a connected quote from William Bateson, the scientist who coined the term ‘genetics’, about evolution, from a letter to his sister, Anna, in 1888:
My brain boils with evolution. It is becoming a perfect nightmare. I believe now that it is an axiomatic truth that no variation, however small, can occur in any part without other variations occurring in correlation to it in all other parts; or rather that no system in which variation of one part had occurred without such correlated variations in all other parts, could continue to be a system.
Sommercasino Basel, Switzerland. My own photo.