Sometimes the simplest things produce the biggest outcomes

Sometimes the simplest things produce the biggest outcomes

This morning the most exciting thing happened. I had decided to go visit my friend and counterpart, Gautier who lives in the neighborhood. As usual I took the back route, a rather treacherous shortcut which goes straight through a marshy suspicious smelling stream. Usually if it rains you find yourself managing to hobble from one stone to another, sometimes taking a running start and getting a little muddy anyways, hoping that no one will take a close look at your shoes. Of course, if that was not enough of an adventure, you could opt to walk over the massive trash heap, avoiding any broken glass or tin cans along the way as the flies and stray dogs swarmed you.

As I turned the corner I prepared myself to choose the best path, whatever that might be for the day. The choice was instantly apparent: what had once been a marshy mess had been almost overnight transformed into multiple wooden plank bridges, neatly bypassing the trash heap. As I started walking gracefully over the stream, I was amazed. Who did this? And why? And how?

In development we are trained to seek change, to transform the community around us. We go in with this static view of what a community is, as some place with a status quo, people forever continuing to live the way they live. However what I have started noticing more and more this past year in Bafia is that my community isn’t static at all. People come and go, children grow up, politicians change, technology changes.

People build bridges. It turns out that my elderly neighbor who farms by the stream decided that she wanted a bridge to make her work easier, and so with her own money and some help from others she built that bridge. When she saw me she shook my hand smiling, saying “Look at what wonderful work we did for our community. For you too.” I thanked her profusely, happily realizing that I had absolutely nothing to do with this change, but that it positively impacted my life. I had not changed her opinion, trained her, or given her the materials to do what needed to be done. She had just made it happen.

This “measuring change” concept is a challenge I have struggled with for the few years I have dipped my feet into monitoring and evaluation of development projects in the field. In development work you are constantly asked to prove your worth, by stating in clear data what change you actually created. As a dutiful scientist, I know that you should always measure change by creating at least two parallel experiments: one experimental group and a control group. This is great when you are working with lab rats, where you have control over their complete environment, only changing one factor in one group to compare how it differs the outcome from the other group.

The challenge in social sciences however, is that you have no control over your variables, since the environment where you are working is not under your control (unless, of course you’re an extremely powerful dictator). So how can you ever know if the intervention you created caused change, or if something else actually made it happen? What if I had talked to my neighbor previously about creating a bridge? Would I now assume that the bridge she created was my doing? Or would I realize that she would build a bridge anyways? “People are unpredictable,” my professor in undergrad always said, as if we needed reminding that international relations theory was rather shaky at best.

As I continued down across the bridge, I thought of all of the education projects I have worked on in the past few years. Almost every project I’ve worked on has been collaborative, almost always with local community members. Perhaps I could have taken credit for the successes that we’ve had and announce it to the world, but that doesn’t seem right either. For some of these activities we may never know the impact we created, since whatever influences we’ve had on children will possibly take years to manifest into something concrete. I often think of my most influential teachers who have changed my life through their work, and don’t even know it, because I’ve never managed to tell them. Will this happen to me as I continue working in education?

I crossed the bridge to the other side and came to a conclusion. Change is change, hopefully more for the good rather than bad. I decided I didn’t have enough of an ego to take complete ownership of change for my projects, and in fact found it even more powerful to think it didn’t have to come from me. So long as the bridge carried me over the water, that was good enough.