Public Policy and the Idea of the Vietnamese State: The Cultural Political Economy of Domestic Water Supply

A Net-Map study on formal and informal water governance in Vietnam, by Nadine Reis and Peter P. Molinga:

Abstract:
Using Rural Water Supply (RWS) policy practices as a case study,this article shows that the disjunction between implementation as formally conceived and informally practised is not a question of ineffective policy cycle dynamics, but rather an inherent feature of Vietnam’s Cultural Political Economy. Drawing on critical realist approaches to social and state theory, we argue that formal and informal RWS policy practices, as a set of two interconnected spheres, serve as key, separate but connected, mechanisms for reproducing the distribution of material resources (primarily through the informal sphere) and the hegemony of ideas (primarily through the formal sphere) in Vietnamese society. We conclude that the formal, administrative practices of RWS policy are primarily to be understood in their function of reproducing the idea of the state and state legitimacy. RWS administrative practices function to sustain the core social and political order in Vietnam as institutionalised in “the state”, rather than being primarily oriented to improving rural water supply. The findings raise questions for donor-supported programs that focus on formal administrative institutions and practices for improving the performance of the water sector.

How my bad French made me a better facilitator

Let Your Magic Happen

I recently went on a mission to Cameroon, where one of my tasks was to facilitate a workshop with about 100 participants. Cameroon is a bilingual country – but that doesn’t mean all Cameroonians are bilingual. It rather means, there are some regions that are predominately francophone (the majority) and some that are anglophone (the rest). And, in my experience, in a room full of 100 people from all over the country, you have maybe 5-10 who prefer speaking English… and who are very used to working in French. Then you have about 90-95 who prefer speaking French… and who understand English better than if you were in a purely francophone country – but who have a strong preference for working in French.

My French on the other hand… well… I understand most of what people say. And I can survive very well. What I cannot do in French is sound clever. Or express delicate matters delicately. Or explain complex processes clearly, so that everyone can easily follow. You’ve guessed it: What I cannot do in French is facilitate a participatory workshop with 100 participants.

How on earth did that make me a better facilitator, you wonder?

Well, a facilitator is someone who provides structure and processes and then gets out of the way to let the magic happen. In the case of Cameroon, like in a lot of my work, we are working with local facilitators who are there not just for the workshops during out field visits but to support the project throughout implementation.

My typical approach to a workshop like this would be to be the lead facilitator and have the local facilitators facilitate small group work and other less challenging, less complex and less visible work. During this workshop however I did not hold a microphone or say a public word even once. I had prepared very well with our local facilitators, we knew what the process was, then I handed over to them and spent the day listening, observing, preparing flip charts, handing out post-its, checking in with the facilitators, feeling the room, keeping eye contact and trying to get out of the way to let the magic happen.

All the while the local facilitators had space to show their value, get visibility, develop contacts and prepare for the implementation work which started once we left.

From this experience I gained two insights:

  • Running the show and dancing on stage might not be the best idea for a visiting mission – even if we know the language well. Because it can easily send the message: The international team consists of superheroes, flown in to save the day. The local team is just second-best – you have to bear with them until the superheroes come back.
  • You are more likely to learn, adapt and innovate in a situation of scarcity and constraints than in a situation of abundance: If everything I wanted had been there (e.g. my perfect command of French) I would have done things like I always do them, without a second thought.

How about you, how have your limitations led you to do your work better?

(image credit: http://www.ourspiritedlife.com/)

The gift of doubt

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Albert O. Hirschman

When reviewing my colleagues’ experience in improving the water and sewerage system in Baghdad, using the Outcome Mapping method, I realized one thing: The really big learnings, changes, breakthroughs happened when something went wrong, when people made mistakes, not when everyone was doing things perfectly. For example only the bad reactions of the public to initial newspaper articles made the team understand that they had to listen more than preach. If the initial communication had been o.k. – though not great – and no one would have even noticed or complained, there would have been little learning.

Today I read an inspiring article which shows me that aparently I am not the first to see this – the literary economist (who prefered to quote Kafka to doing math) Albert O. Hirschman made a science out of researching this. His biography is out, and this New Yorker article gives you a first flavor:

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

“Developing countries required more than capital. They needed practice in making difficult economic decisions. Economic progress was the product of successful habits—and there is no better teacher, Hirschman felt, than a little adversity. He would rather encourage settlers and entrepreneurs at the grass-roots level—and make them learn how to cope with those impediments themselves—than run the risk that aid might infantilize its recipient.”