Saturday, 29 December 2007

The Smart Toolkit; evaluating information products and services

Communication is vital for rural development. But what makes communication effective? Who bothers to find out? Seemingly few, after all evaluation of communication tools and products is involved and complex. Thankfully some organisations involved in information documentation and dissemination have placed emphasis on evaluating the effectiveness of their products and services such as newsletters, websites, training events and databases and dossiers. The Smart Toolkit, which is a collaboration between CTA, KIT and IICD, is one example of such an evaluation toolkit. Follow the links on the left hand side of the website and it will take you to the original toolkit (which is currently being updated).

Mind the gap!

'Gapminder is a non-profit venture
promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations
Millennium Development Goals by increased use and understanding of statistics
and other information about social, economic and environmental development at
local, national and global levels.'

There are a range of powerful tools and resources on the website. You can select various indicators and watch how they have changed over time.

Excellent resource, try it out!

The 100 countries most vulnerable to climate change

Read here

Spotlight on biofuels

Biofuels are certainly on the agenda for the N. Ireland Rural Development Programme 2007-2011 and will certainly have impacts locally. But what about the impact of biofuels globally?

'Biofuels are described by some as absolutely catastrophic because of their
potential consequences, while others see them as the driving force for
development in some of the world's poorest regions. This edition of SciDev.Net
picks a path between "doomsayers" and "utopians", and looks at the reality of
biofuels research and development in the developing world.'

Climate change and forest genetic diversity

'Climate change is increasingly recognised as one of the most important
challenges faced globally by ecosystems and societies alike. Climate change will
alter the environmental conditions to which forest trees in Europe are adapted
and expose them to new pests and diseases. This document presents papers
from a workshop on climate change and forest genetic diversity. This set of
papers shows how climate change will create additional challenges for forest
management, with consequent impacts on the economic and social benefits that
societies and individuals derive from the forests, and on the biological
diversity in forest ecosystems.'

Read more here.

The Trouble with Travel and Trees

Many of us will be familiar with carbon off-setting schemes as a potential mechanism for the reduction of the impact of air travel on greenhouse gases and climate change. Some of you may already have opted for such off-setting when booking air travel tickets. Certainly those delegates and organisations attending the recent Bali Climate Change conference made everyone aware that they were 'minimising' any potential impact by off-setting. A recent publication from IIED however highlights that such carbon off-setting schemes, involving tree planting and forest conservation, may lead to problems for people in rural communities in developing countries. Such problems as evictions and reduced access to forest products may arise especially for people and communities who did little or nothing to contribute to the problem of climate change in the first place.

Building on our strengths

The Carnegie Trust has joined with the International Association of Community Development (IACD) to examine projects that have built on local strengths and assets to achieve rural regeneration worldwide and hopefully develop a dialogue on sharing ideas and lessons learned. Read more here.

Friday, 28 December 2007

12th World Congress of Rural Sociology

The 12th World Congress of Rural Sociology is scheduled for 2008 in Korea. Read more here.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

How does learning happen?

Following my recent bout of teaching on participation and partnerships, which was all too brief and was always going to be a shallow treatment, and some extended reflection it dawned on me that I had neglected one important area. While we discussed and debated many of the reasons for participation and partnerships and why it is important to strengthen such processes for effective rural development, I had failed to mention why participatory approaches are relevant to the ways that people learn, especially adult learners.

There is a massive amount of information available online about adult learning, theories of learning and learning styles. I won't go into this in detail but it is important to have a good understanding and how participatory approaches facilitate learning. Firstly there are a variety of theories of learning which include the behaviourist, cognitive and constructivist approach. There is no universal theory of learning so it is useful to have a grasp of these. Rural development is largely in the business of teaching adults and there are special characteristics of adult learners that need to be considered. These include: wealth of personal experience; a desire to obtain knowledge they can use in the context of their real lives; enjoy interaction and sharing experiences and learning from this usually in a safe environment. Adults too learn in a variety of ways. Much educational research supports the idea of four main steps in the way adults learn. This is now known as the Experiential Learning Cycle and involving Experience: Reflection: Thinking: and Action which leads to gradual transformation in the learner. But adults are individuals and we all have our own learning preferences or Learning Styles. Basically learners can be divided into four categories; Pragmatists: Reflectors: Theorists: and Activists but it is more likely that we fall into more than one category or style and that a number of contexts and factors influence this.

What is my point? The most important point is to appreciate that there are a variety of ways in which people learn and that this must be taken into account when you are training or running workshops. And that running such trainings and workshops in a participatory and flexible way is the most appropriate approach to achieve effective learning.

If you are interested in this area of teaching and learning I would recommend Peter Taylor's book 'How to Design a Training Course; A Guide to Participatory Curriculum Development. Extracts of this book are available online.

Factsheets for community development practitioners now available online

The Rural Community Network has redeigned and now made available online their series of factsheets for rural community development workers. Here are two relevant examples, Partnership Working and Undertaking Community Consultation. Many others are available here.

Lack of participatory spaces for reflection on rural development practice

The lack of non-threatening and participatory forums for serious reflection on the values, attitudes and behaviours necessary for rural development was, for me anyway, one of the most important gaps identified during my interaction with postgraduate students on the QUB Rural Development masters degree recently. Such spaces appear to be largely absent in the university environment but it also appears that the opportunity for reflective practice in the field is minimal as well. At least from the feedback I was able to get from my small group. This left me wondering how rural development practitioners and community development workers are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge that will be necessary to 'take forward the practice of rural community development over the next 10 years'. Is it assumed that practitioners will just learn on-the-job? Are these skills and attitudes not important enough to 'teach and learn' in a university or organisational context? Can they be taught? Can they be taught in an academic setting? These are all questions that we discussed during the session and largely agreed that they could and should be taught in universities and were essential to creating rural development organisations and workers who value reflective practice. Local rural development organisations certainly see this as a priority. The Rural Community Network (RCN) have undertaken consultations that have identified the skills and knowledge that are necessary for effective rural development practice. We covered much of this in our sessions on participation and partnership. In its latest Policy Link (Issue 1, November 2007), the RCN asks,
'will the Rural Development Programme lead to greater equality and good relations'
While political will, leadership and an appropriate policy framework are essential in realising this, it will be the everyday reflective practice and appropriate skills and knowledge of rural development practitioners at grassroots level that are certainly going to be essential if such equality is to be realised. What I would like to know is where such values, skills and knowledge and capacity building is taking place? Who is going to undertake 'real' monitoring and evaluation of such intangibles? And How?

Coercion or collaboration? The ethics of participation

During my recent teaching sessions on the Masters in Rural Development we had a useful discussion on ethics and participation. This discussion covered issues related to local rural development and the global context and obviously there is considerable similarities and overlap wherever one is dealing with marginalised groups. Topics included the need for transparency at the outset on the goal of the participatory process, what are the expected benefits and who will benefit, what are the implications and responsibilities that will fall on those who participate. A great deal of the discussion focused on data collection and local knowledge, ownership and communication of such information and knowledge. The dangers of 'plagiarism' and using local knowledge and passing it off as your own. The widespread use of photographs and publication without consent was another interesting topic as were other forms of exploitation or deception. At the end of the session we had covered a lot of ground on issues to be addressed if a participatory process is to avoid coercion, cooption and deception.

My earlier posting on the PEER participatory approach has a useful publication on the ethics of participatory approaches, click here for more information.

If anyone is aware of local organisations that have produced ethical guidelines for participatory approaches please do let us know.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Participation Nation

'Participation Nation is the latest publication from Involve and brings together 17 leading thinkers and practitioners from government, local authorities, think tanks and NGOs to discuss the role of the citizen in the public realm. Bringing their individual perspectives to the debate, each writer explores just what the government’s ambitions to harness “people power” will mean in practice to the future policies and politics of Britain.'

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

PEERing into communities and beyond

Mary Manandhar, who I met recently at the Development's Futures conference, has brought the PEER participatory research approach to my attention.
'PEER is an innovative approach to participatory research and evaluation. It is
a rapid and effective way of gaining an in-depth understanding of the social
world of specific communities and groups. PEER is carried out by ordinary
community members who conduct detailed interviews with others in their social
network. PEER enables programmes to access the insider view of social
relationships and behaviour within the specific social context.'
As Mary also points out from her own experience,
'the method works particularly well with the more secret and sensitive aspects
of beliefs and behaviours, such as transactional and intergenerational sex, and
sexual violence among the most marginalised groups whose voices are seldom
heard. It has advantages over the more conventional qualitative research
Thanks to Mary for the heads up.

Power, Process and Participation

This publication dates back to 1995 and strangely I didn't come across it until a few weeks ago when I was preparing for some postgraduate classes in rural development at Queens and the Rural College. I still found it very useful as an introductory text for students of participation and participatory processes. Before describing a good range of participatory tools that might be considered for facilitating environmental and social change there is an interesting section of 'issues' related to participation. This section covers a range of topics that any participatory practitioner needs to consider at the outset of a participatory process such as the ends and means of participation and the uneven relations of power among participants. There is also a useful six step checklist for those considering using a participatory process.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Social commitment of knowledge

'The Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI) invites the academic community worldwide to participate in the 4th International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education to explore the role of higher education as a key element for human and social development and to rethink and propose new routes for the interchange of values between higher education institutions and society. '

Reinventing higher education: toward participatory and sustainable development

There is growing debate within higher education circles about the relevance of capacity building and enhancement with in universities and colleges in the face of globalisation. Among topics at the top of the agenda are the needs for new forms of learning, new institutional forms that support the attainment of sustainable development. Much of what is relevant to this debate will be discussed at this forthcoming UNESCO conference in Bangkok.

By the way, we are currently in the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.