PDIA Course Journey: “There is Rubbish Everywhere!”

Guest blog written by Sinit ZeruSafiatou DialloDiaraye DialloHimideen Toure and Sophie Tidman

Team Guinea successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in June 2018. This is their story. 

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During a press conference held before his second term, Guinea’s President, Alpha Conde, eloquently summarised our team’s chosen challenge: “there is rubbish everywhere!”  In the capital, Conakry, there are sixty-five public places that have become informal dumping grounds – including beaches, roads and markets – holding nearly 35,000 tonnes of rubbish. Every day, 1,000 tonnes of waste are produced in Conakry.  Waste is expected to increase 5% every year, fuelled by population growth and single-use plastic packaging.  The arrival of the first rainfall this year pushed garbage previously retrieved from gutters into homes.  As the rainy season continues to October, overflowing landfill sites threaten lives and cholera outbreaks are feared.

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Several actions have been initiated, including the coordination of a pilot project led by the Prime Minister for efficient waste management and professionalization of the sector.  Citizens, especially the youth of Conakry, have increasingly taken action into their own hands: tweeting selfies in front of piles of rubbish, and organising volunteer clean-up operations of beaches and roads. More recently, an entire neighbourhood blocked traffic on one of the main roads of the capital to express their frustration after having their homes destroyed by landslide of rubbish.

The PDIA method offered the opportunity to break down the challenge and reach out beyond the standard stakeholders and conventional ‘best practice’ approaches.  Three key learnings emerged from our team’s experience of tackling this challenge using PDIA:

  1. Diverse teams can challenge norms and spark change
  2. Every step is a victory!
  3. Fresh perspectives bring new ways of thinking

Diverse teams can challenge norms and spark change

The team was a diverse mix of a Guinean expert assistant to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) staff embedded within the Primature, and TBI London staff.  The PDIA approach is far from business as usual for most governments whether they be in ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ contexts and this is also true for our Guinea Primature colleagues.  Where often there can be stigma around novel ways of thinking, TBI advisors can create cover for our Government counterparts to explore, experiment, fail and learn-by-doing.  The diversity of the team brought a richness of ideas – e.g. using mapping technology to identify and get regular feedback on waste sites – and challenge to norms – e.g. to traditional communication methods between the Centre and implementing agencies and CSOs.

There is a risk that embedded advisors can lower local accountability for carrying out the PDIA approach because of the perception that they will step-in if work is not done.  We found that we avoided this because of the discipline of the PDIA course and the way we established team norms.  We established a rotating leadership and discussed accountability head-on so that the whole team was committed and each member picked up the slack when they needed: “we don’t need to have everyone 100% of the time to keep things moving”.

Every step is a victory!

Early on, it felt like we were on stand-by: change could not happen until Mayors were in place, until workshops took place.  There was an expectation that teams in the Centre of Government focus on directing and coordinating and steer clear of getting too involved in implementation issues.  This was called out in one of our reflective team meetings, demonstrating a level of challenge that was supported by the strong levels of trust in the team.

The methods of deconstructing the problem shifted our perspective of the issue.  Previously, conceiving of the challenge as ‘getting a strategy to solve waste management in Guinea’ limited us to bureaucratic interventions (drafting changes, convening stakeholders, directing and supporting accountability).   Focusing instead on the problem of rubbish in public places in Conakry expanded our opportunities to act: as one team member put it, “let’s not just be stuck!”

For example, one of the team members found out about a University competition to address rubbish in Conakry led by the Minister of Education and is using this to get political airtime and engage the PM on our work and get buy-in for new, quickly implementable ideas outside the formal strategy.  The speed with which new learnings came from the most incremental or exploratory actions led one of our members to exclaim “every step is a victory!”

Fresh perspectives bring new ways of thinking

One of our experiments was to interview citizens, bloggers, civil society organisations (CSOs) and private enterprise using Human Centred Design principles: asking open ended questions; considering body language and other clues within the environment as well as actual responses; seeking to understand underlying values and motivation; and finally connecting with people, listening with empathy, not judgement.  The team was surprised by how many fresh ideas this exercise unearthed.  Primature colleagues from the PDIA team are now proposing that CSOs inform implementation with their knowledge of dumping/salvage sites and to develop a series of public awareness campaigns.

What next?

It’s early days, but the team’s work has planted a seed of change.  We are now excited about the possibilities where before we were overwhelmed by circumstances out of our control.  We are capitalizing on the new PM’s renewed focus on waste to iterate more experimental ideas to tackle the issue like launching public awareness campaigns – but also to spread the PDIA approach to others in the Guinean Government.  English was a third or fourth language for some in the team.  We’d love to see the course translated to French in future to make PDIA more accessible to francophone countries like Guinea.

 

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