Hearing All the Voices

With our Government’s policy to ‘put the community at the centre of everything we do’, I have had plenty of opportunity to assist DELWP project managers design a participatory approach  to their work.  Based on the ‘diverge/converge’ model, the first part ‘hearing all the voices’ is critical to any sustainable resolution to a decision.

After the fire at Wye River I helped the local DELWP PM’s of five small projects identify their stakeholders and run ‘listening posts’ at the periphery of the official Town Hall style recovery meetings. These were sufficiently successful that the local staff were willing to analyse their stakeholders and ask for input to the ‘negotiables’ on a number of others.

Together with Semi-structured interviews and Kitchen Table Conversations, a really useful technique to outline the problem and start conversations has been the Open House technique. We have now run such events for the following projects, mainly around coastal issues:

  • Coastal change Narrawong
  • Coastal change Indented Head
  • Coastal change Point Lonsdale
  • Coastal change Apollo Bay
  • Belfast Coastal Management Plan
  • Winchelsea Common
  • DELWP depot relocation Forrest

    Coastal Change

    Prior to going to Malawi, I was involved in Coastal Hazard Mapping projects, which included the release of the document for Port Fairy. The driver for action in Port Fairy was the exposure of an old land fill site in the dunes, and this eventually resulted in an engagement process driven by community members. What I have learned over the last 18 months is that when it comes to climate change and the coast, each locality is absolutely unique and requires a different approach in each instance.



    The need for engagement was driven by issues regarding a submerging campsite and local concerns about the committee which managed the camp site. See youtube video at:


    As in all instances, posters developed were particular to the site and situation :

    (A small aside; we had to ask the committee member who sat at the event the whole time to move his car when we realised others were turning away when seeing it in the car park)

    Indented Head

    This was driven by City of Greater Geelong and through a series of small community meetings resulted in them inviting friends, neighbours etc. to a 1.5hr workshop that explored the ‘past present and future’ of this part of the coast.  The past was a focussed conversation around photos provided by community members, for the present I used my poster process, and the future was a Noisy Round Robin followed by an Action Planning Session. A bit of a highlight for the group was members of the Port Fairy Citizens Science group being there. I included a poster illustrating their work.


    Point Lonsdale

    This process was developed in response to some community members concerned about sand missing from a section of beach.

    The DELWP project managers engaged a consultant to do a desk top review of all the studies carried out on that piece of coast. At the completion of this work, we held an Open House to set the context of his report. Whilst the consultant was in attendance, we did not advertise it.

    We have now completed the feedback sheet based on a ‘theme and name’ process, which is rapidly becoming a model for providing the feedback to all these events. Of particular mention is that there is no numbers attached to any idea (This is not a decision making sessio). We are now preparing for some World Cafe events using themes derived from the ‘what we heard’ groups. My current thought is to offer as many 1 hr workshops as desired, but limit the numbers to 24 per workshop. Still open to other ideas on that one!  We’re also now offering horizontal surfaces for people to write on post-its. I’m still a bit cautious of that one. Maybe it should be both.

    Apollo Bay

    Storms in 2011 and 2016 had lead to specific and substantial spot erosion. Sand was replaced, but not without community dissent. In March this year money was allocated for a three year program to move sand. Because of the need to advertise and let a tender prior to winter there was little opportunity for ‘negotiables’, but still a need to inform the community that work would happen this year. Carried out in collaboration with the CoM, the Open House event was designed to be ‘inform’ for this year, but ‘consult’ on where to move sand from and too in subsequent years. Lots of ideas were expressed on how to retain the sand in the future.


    Winchelsea Common

    The Winchelsea Common had been closed by the EPA in 2013 due to the high levels of lead in the ground. The EPA required the local Council and DELWP for an engagement process to determine future use of the common to inform clean up notices. The ‘Open Shed’ was only an annex to the main engagement process which were ‘Reverse Guided Tours’ held throughout the day.

    Visitors to the Open Shed were invited to take part in facilitated site tours of The Common. The ‘reverse site tour’ was structured so that after a brief overview from agency representatives, the participants were provided the opportunity to comment at each of the four stops rather than listening to agency views.


  • Site 1.   Two large trees showing lead shot damage
  • Site 2 – Go-Kart Track
  • Site 3 – Vegetated area with significant grasslands
  • Site 4 – Open area with dirt mound/soil stockpile

At each site the community participants were asked:

  1.  What do you like about this spot?
  2. What are the opportunities?

Each tour took approx. 45 -60 minutes. Feedback was captured by the tour facilitators.

By listening, the process helped ameliorate the anger of a group that saw the common closure as an act of class warfare.

Subsequent workshops with a landscape designer has resulted in a future use plan that all are willing to support.

Forrest depot relocation

The DELWP Forrest Depot is being shut down, and a new facility being constructed in a village 10km away. Government policy is to allow community groups identify alternative uses prior to redundant facilities being sold on the open market. This Open House was designed to collect all the ideas for the reuse of this asset.




Belfast Coastal Management Plan

The beginnings of a complex project being carried out in collaboration with two local authorities and Parks Vic. This recently held Open House is just the start of an intensive six week period of listening to many diverse individuals and groups that have equally as many diverse opinions on how this substantial piece of coastline should be managed in the future.

Reflections and Learnings

Every instance is completely unique. There is a driver for change, and a whole number of people are either interested or will be effected by a decision. The response has to be tailored for the specific situation. Some things that have worked:

Work with the local group (CoM, residents action group, etc.) to decide on place and time. They will also be the ones that do the best word of mouth advertising.

Don’t rely on media advertising. Put time into word of mouth personal connections.

Always put some form of advertising out, to ensure it is not seen to be restricted to those in the know.

Keep the posters as factual as possible, minimising Govt. staff opinions and ideas. Always look for the opportunity to get local opinions, ideas and views as part of the sessions. Develop ‘Negotiables’ and ‘Not Negotiables’ to inform key questions and key messages. Beware of assumptions!

Be careful of specialists and experts. Don’t advertise that they will be there, and if essential, make sure they are not in a large space.

Make sure the advertising is for a ‘drop in’ event, open between xx & yy hours. Try to have more than one session.

Good to have an accompanying website. Just make sure it corresponds in content and time with the ‘Hearing all the Voices’ section of the process.

Create a plan for the event. Know which posters are going where, how many boards, where they will be placed in the space, tables will go etc.

Kids space is good

Finding photos and asking community members for photos of the locality over time is excellent. Many find that their memories are a bit off.

Having a flip chart at the exit, and very pro-actively gathering ‘last thoughts’ as people leave. This often gives the best insights.

Both the event itself, and the ‘What we have heard’ document allow participants to see the wide range of views on the topic.

Things that need more work. 

I don’t feel I’ve worked out the writing horizontally/vertically business. I think it is easier for people to read work posted vertically, but probably write horizontally. I think facilitators should write what others are saying vertically. So it needs a bit of both.

Sometimes PM’s finding the time for word of mouth engagement/advertising

Staff are getting better at listening and scribing. The 15min training helps. I think we could get better at using the internal facilitators group in Head Office.

My biggest concern at the moment is not getting the feedback, the ‘what we have heard’ message, back out in a timely manner. As a facilitator, it is considered best practice to produce a workshop report in 24hrs. I was initially expecting Project Managers to take a few weeks, but in almost all cases it has taken longer. I am a bit concerned about the possible impact… we will see.

I’m not too sure on how to plan and implement some form of participatory regional engagement evaluation and reflection process.

Getting the right balance between being ‘adviser’ and ‘doer’.

Reflection and Evaluation

Two weeks after leaving Malawi has allowed a bit of time to overcome the culture shock of returning to Geelong and space for reflection .

The good parts: There were many! The people, the climate, the natural environment, the culture of engagement, the good humour, the resilience and resourcefulness of the Malawian people. There were many more but these will do as a start…

The challenges: There were many! The erratic infrastructure, the pollution, the limitations of bonding capital, the indescribable effects of internalised and institutionalised colonialism, the dysfunctional Government system, the ‘drama triangle’ played out between the Malawians and donors.

The disappointments. The major disappointment was to find that the roles of those involved in contemporary international development programs are far more aligned to those I experienced as an apprentice in an engineering works than the job titles themselves would suggest.

Factory Terminology Development Terminology` Role
Client Donor Sets out the brief, provides the funds.
Design Engineer Proposal writer Designs the product to be implemented/constructed
Works Manager Project Manager Responsible for the day to day running of the project/order
Foreman M&E specialist Keeps track of day to day operations and performance
Craftsman Trainer Provider of specialist skills
Machine operator Field facilitator Output implementers
Labourer Driver General dogs body

The joys; Being involved with the Malawian people was wonderful. I got immense satisfaction and enjoyment from designing and facilitating more than 23 workshops over the period, especially with establishing and running the five inaugural sessions of the M&E Technical Working Group.

Some of the wonderful feedback I got from the M&E Technical Working Group members were:

It has been an honor to know and work with you Martin, you are so easy to talk to when one has issues. I must really appreciate the way we interacted during your stay here. Let me assure you that I will strive to utilize the skills you shared and thanks again for that useful book and the start-up materials, that was so wonderful, may the good Lord give back abundantly- Rodrick


Thank you for the time we spent together here in Malawi and for the skills you have shared with us I really appreciate for this – Bonface


I will miss your pragmatic approach to issues and rare facilitation skills. We were empowered. Hope to work with you again. – Ronald


The contribution you made to our TWG is so great that you have left a mark. – Marie


Goodbyes are always sad but we still celebrate the time you have worked with CU and inTWG…You are the best mentor and that has brought the best out of us. We look forward to using your good facilitation skills in our workshops.- Cecelia


It was great working with you, and the skills you imparted on me will surely have a significant impact on my professional development.- Tenthema

Evaluation It was a really rewarding 18 months, and I need to say a big ‘Thankyou’  to all those in the organisations of Concern Universal Malawi and Australian Volunteers International for providing such an opportunity. I learned all kinds of things, had great times, experienced some (not too dangerous) challenges with adequate support and above all made some great connections with some wonderful people. We may have even made a slight bit of difference…. What more can one want!

Celebrations and Farewell

Troop carrier

Helen gracefully exiting the troop carrier (or Hardtop as they’re known in Malawi) at Zomba

18 months have gone so fast! Suddenly it’s time to leave and say good bye to so many friends that we feel as if we have known for years. The last M&E Technical Working Group was held in Zomba, the old colonial capital of Malawi (then Nyasaland). As usual for the Brits it is set in a high, cooler location with less Malaria. We had an extra day to finish off the Centralised Data Base submission, the Data Quality Assurance Program, develop a job description for a National M&E Coordinator and other items. It was also an open secret that some surprise was being organised, with Debbie and Helen being invited along as well. Next Stop Geelong.

Tiaone doing some dance capacity building  with Helen

Tiaone doing some dance capacity building with Helen

Akimu, Cecila, Debbie, Rodrick, MB getting into the swing.

Akimu, Cecila, Debbie, Rodrick, MB getting into the swing.

Saying farewell to the guards of Parmodzi flats, Namiwawa. Joseph, Robert, Austin, MB, Francis.

Saying farewell to the guards of Parmodzi flats, Namiwawa. Joseph, Robert, Austin, MB, Francis.

Brick Wall

Travelling too fast (possibly even recklessly!), come to a corner and slide into a brick wall, only to be left picking up the pieces – metaphorically speaking. Describing the ‘impact’ that an organisations activities have through a staff perspective proved to be a bit like hitting a brick wall at speed. Not the desired impact.

The staple food in Malawi is ground maize meal, cooked into a thick paste called nsima. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘food’ by the locals, because anything else is considered merely ‘relish’, or an accompaniment. Unfortunately whilst nsima is incredibly filling, it is almost completely nutrition free. The consequences of this cultural phenomena are dire. The UNDP writes “Malnutrition remains a challenge and the single biggest contributor to underweight children under the five years of age and child mortality. If the current trend continues, about 32 percent of children will be underweight by 2015 which is 18 per cent more than the (Millenium Development Goal) target.” These children are malnourished because they’re fed an exclusive diet of nsima. Food production and eating are cultural activities, and people only change accepted cultural practice or tradition at their own pace.

Grace scooping nsima out of the pot. Each glutenous pod being a serving.

Grace scooping nsima out of the pot. Each glutenous pod being a serving.

How we describe the ‘truth’ is equally subject to cultural tradition. Wikipedia states that ‘There are differing claims on such questions as what constitutes truth: what things are truthbearers capable of being true or false; how to define and identify truth; the roles that faith-based and empirically based knowledge play; and whether truth is subjective or objective, relative or absolute.’ In other words whether one prefers the truth as described by a science undergrad or that of Hunter S Thompson is in itself one of cultural tradition. In a complex world with multiple truths, both are more or less right. Difficulties generally arise when the belief is that there is only one truth, in much the same way as believing there is only one food. Despite being a truism, what one believes to be true, is true. Unfortunately a critical factor in todays world is who has the power to define the truth, – even when describing how to identify and describe truth itself.

One story, a type of truth. Livelyhood project staff were asked 'what legacy of your project would you hope to find 2yrs after you've left an area?'. They were then asked 'what chance do you expect your project would achieve each aspect?'. Across the projects, answers were: Economically Empowered Households 70% chance; Effective Community Lead Advocacy 50%; Improved Well Being 70%; Effective local institutions 50%.

Multiple stories leading to an agreed truth. In a workshop I asked Livelyhood project staff  ‘What legacy of your project would you hope to find 2yrs after you’ve left an area?’. After grouping their answers, I  then asked ‘what chance do you expect your project would achieve each aspect?’. Of those in this photo, answers were: Economically Empowered Households 70% chance; Effective Community Lead Advocacy 50%; Improved Well Being 70%; Effective local institutions 50%.

So, whether an impact report based on staff perceptions of ‘impact’ is more or less true than something with figures and an impression of objectivity is in itself subjective. I say ‘impression’ of objectivity because whilst ‘objectivity’ is the dominant culture of describing ‘truth’, it is still only a cultural tradition, and possibly only relatively appropriate when describing change in a highly complex environment with infinite factors and parameters. So, a bit like telling a Malawian that nsima isn’t that good for them, I’m left surveying the wreckage caused by attempting to describe an organisations ‘impact’ in a different manner to the accepted tradition. Which leaves me wondering how and where to start putting things back together.

Impact Report 2

I have just run the second workshop to gain staff input to the Impact report, this time with half of the WASH members. There are seven WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) projects implemented by CU, which account for 23% of the total project expenditure, so I was pleased to have a few hours of their time as part of a Whole of WASH (WoW) get together.

WASH staff look at posters describing activities and outcomes across the whole of CU

WASH staff look at posters describing activities and outcomes across the whole of CU

I again used the poster process, but this time remembered how successful it was in ’19 points of connection’ to have sticky dot likert scales associated with each poster. These sticker dot surveys have given some Interesting insights into the development world.

It looks as if there is more  support for water provision than sewage.. funny that.

It looks as if there is more support for water provision than sewage.. funny that.

Junaid Ahmad is senior director for the water global practice of the World Bank Group. He maintains that interventions that focus on collective behavior change and shifting social norms are vital in this war on open defecation. ‘In rural India, there are places with signs that say: “We will not give our daughters in marriage to someone from a village that doesn’t practice total sanitation.” This is the type of social movement that is required. In addition, political will at the highest level is absolutely fundamental…..’ Unfortunately Malawi is unlikely to make it’s Millennium Development Goals in this area, mainly because according to UNDP, there is not sufficient high level political will in the country.

OK, so it was WASH staff commenting on agriculture, but almost everyone in the country grows maize.

OK, so it was WASH staff commenting on agriculture, but almost everyone in the country grows maize.

I am pleased to see that there are some attempts at innovation, which when I consider the lack of political will to enact any change to carbon producing behaviour in other parts of the world it all makes Malawi look positively dynamic.