Thursday, 26 March 2015

On failure.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans...

Next week, I will be finishing up in my role here in Hanoi. It will have been over eight months since I commenced what should have been an eighteen-month role - with scope to extend, if possible.

I knew within three months of starting that I wouldn't be staying for my full term. This was for a number of reasons, but it became quite clear to me that there was a distinct gap between what my organisation wanted to achieve through my position, and my professional experience, knowledge and abilities. And then there are all the other challenges that come with working in international development, such as language and cultural barriers, and the availability of counterpart staff.

Of course, the reality of development work is that one should leave one's expectations at the door, and for the better part, I have done this. It didn't take long to realise that my supervisor didn't really understand the duties and outcomes that were listed in the role descriptions, and nor did I. So, it was clear to me that failure was already inevitable - at least in terms of achieving the prescribed outcomes.

However, this also prompted the opportunity to take a few months to monitor staff activities, and constantly ask questions, in order to understand exactly what it was that my organisation did, who their stakeholders and clients were, what their information and knowledge needs were, and the kinds of services and products we could deliver in order to meet those needs. As fundamental information and knowledge management practice, this was an excellent opportunity to scope the landscape and document my findings, with a comprehensive powerpoint presentation and list of proposed projects to develop over the following fifteen months.

But the other important thing about development work is that it's not about me. It's about the organisation, and whilst my role is to advise, they are the ones who ultimately make the decisions. As as important as my proposals were to me, there are people suffering from extreme poverty, poor sanitation and farming techniques, deforestation, and the social impact of being a disempowered ethnic minority. That's at the heart of the organisation's work, and being as under-resourced as they are, the focus of most of their energy is in the field at the grass-roots level.The fact is that whilst the activities that I propose would definitely add value to the organisation, they are not as important as the ever-arising immediate issues that the organisation faces.

This is something I must always remind myself - it's not about me, or my work. I am not necessary in the same way that other staff are. If anything, I'm often a burden, requiring a counterpart to act as translator and facilitator for my work. That's not to say that what I have to offer isn't appreciated - it absolutely is, and every contribution I give is warmly received. However, as a change agent, I feel like a failure. Even though I understand that change is a slow process, I need to first be able to see the scope for change - a commitment to achieve common outcomes as a team.

The problem is that, as much as I intended to suspend any expectations of the role, I still had the expectation of myself that I would have some quantifiable achievements to show for my time here. I can confidently say that I've done a lot of good work here, and helped where I can. To use that cliche, I've made a difference. But the reality is also that I am simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am taking the place of somebody else who, with the right skills and knowledge, can be the change agent that I have failed to be.

So, I've already persisted longer than numerous friends and peers have advised me, but I'm stubborn like that - unwilling to accept failure. Perhaps the best lesson learnt here has been to know when it's time to accept it and move on. That time is now.