This blog post has been written by Clara Richards, one of our associates. It is part of the P&I series where we share our personal and professional journeys and how they link to a re-thinking of Politics&Ideas and its purpose
I was thrilled about the opportunity of leading an international consortium across four countries. This was what I always wanted to do: work with others to help solve complex development problems. Explore a new continent, its people and its culture. All I could feel was the energy of possibility.
As the project advanced and we met partners, I started feeling something was not right, a kind of uneasiness sat with me. It was difficult to clearly pinpoint to what was not working for me. Looking back, I realise there were multiple elements that made me feel that way: I slowly started realising that my heart was no longer in this work, that there were limitations and bottlenecks that we were not being able to navigate and those frustrated me. I started disbelieving in what we were doing, or rather how we were working… To me, we were tackling problems that had not been defined locally, they were relevant to an international agenda but locally, we struggled to get traction. Part of me felt we were running an initiative that ticked boxes, met milestones in order to jump to the next task, trapped in a cycle to demonstrate impact but sometimes not really knowing if the desired impact was what was needed on the first place. All this, despite the debate that already exists to about these dilemmas, however, operationally, we seem unable to put new ways of working into practice.
Challenging these bottlenecks takes courage and proposing to work differently has limitations. For example, it is difficult to convince donors to fund experiments to try new approaches out, as successful case studies of alternative approaches are not yet systematised. It also requires bravery to bring these topics up in conversations, I still feel uncomfortable when I talk about involving the intelligence of the heart and emotions in work. (In fact, I am doubting if I should be including this in this blog!). Personally, there is a lot at stake to let go of old and accepted way of working and daring to propose to try out new ones.
However, this time I was very uncomfortable with the situation and I could no longer avoid the questions that came up: Why can’t we create meaningful partnerships and truly co-create initiatives? How can we share leadership? Why is it being so hard to address power dynamics and build structures that consciously work towards having more equity? How could we develop trusting relationships that enables us to create more innovative work?
I was not sure how to answer these questions, and I still wonder and debate with colleagues in the international development sector about these issues. I started looking and finding alternative approaches to how we work outside of the international development sector. I came across people who dared to challenge the way we operate as individuals and organisations and try new ones. Some of these propose giving space to the knowledge of the heart and the body, integrating them with our rational mind. They also suggest connecting with deeper sources of intuition and truly connecting with others by listening actively. These practices generate safe holding spaces where co-creation is possible to emerge. A space where everyone feels welcome to speak up ideas, thoughts and feelings, a safe space for failing and learning. And yes, it takes courage to confront the voices of fear, cynicism, or judgement that usually come up. And it takes practice. A lot of practice to develop these skills. To me, these approaches were an invitation to start practicing and experimenting. I decided to quit my old job that required me to follow rules and processes that no longer spoke to my heart and take the risk of working independently through P&I to have more freedom of thought and action.
Since 2017 I started learning about systemic thinking, authentic relating, collective intelligence and co-creation. I was trained in Theory U and I practice Circling regularly. In this journey, I was exposed to many people that helped me think about applying these ideas to the context of international development. I explored the literature on organisations and how they can become systems of innovation. All in all I came to realise we live in a world of interconnectedness, of interbeing , where collective intelligence can create outcomes none of us can achieve individually. Perhaps, this has become even more evident with the current Covid-19 crisis we are facing.
For the last three years I have gone through a process of hibernation. Exploring different schools of thought, connecting with likeminded people, trying to understand how this “idealistic” way of working could be brought into reality. Colleagues at P&I also felt something was changing for them, we needed to let go of old ways of working that no longer serve us and discover what is the new that we want to bring to the fore: Who can we better support and why? I am grateful to have a group of people with whom I can explore and experiment alternative ways of working. We are opening up and inviting others to join us in this journey. We have lots of questions and some answers but more importantly, we would love to hear your thoughts and experiences! Follow our coming blog posts to know more about how this journey is going for us, what tools we are using to co-create and what new ideas and initiatives emerge!