Unravelling premature load bearing in Nigerian public institutions

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Guest blog by Andrew Omoluabi,Folake Oluwayemisi Aliu, Saheed Mustafa, Ukeme E. Essien, Wakaso Semira,Oluyemisi Elizabeth Akpa

This is a team working at WaterAid in Nigeria. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in December 2018. This is their story.

Propelled by the quest to gain a deeper understanding of the sharp variations in the outcomes of past and ongoing technical assistance received by various Nigerian public institutions, a team of six Nigeria-based development workers embarked upon this journey of PDIA.  At the time of enrolling for the PDIA course, none of us knew anything about the approach.  We were nudged on to commit the next 15 weeks of our lives through the persuasive acumen of the team member that made the discovery.

After 15 weeks of having our creed for capacity development shaken to its very foundation, learning new terminologies like “Big Stuck”, “Premature load bearing”, “Isomorphic Mimicry”, and the hair pulling that came with our weekly WhatsApp based meetings, each team member is proud and relieved at the same time to have made it to the end of the course.  Was our group cohesion anywhere near what we saw of the Orpheus Group… far from it.  Was the course worth the effort? A unanimously resounding yes from the group, especially since PDIA is at the heart of the sort of complex problems that we as development workers tackle daily.

We learnt new things and had some of our assumptions overturned.

One of the key learning for us was that we had been guilty of developing the capacity of public institutions in the likeness and image painted by our respective funding agencies.  Unbeknown to us that we had been perpetuating isomorphic mimicry ourselves.  It is no wonder therefore that you find instances of agencies that on the outside look like they possess all the requisite conditions to succeed but, on the inside, lack the capability.   Making this determination is however not as easy as it seems.  We learnt that to do this effectively, we needed to apply the processes and principles of PDIA.  For instance, we had to go beyond the symptoms of the capacity problem to the root causes by iteratively constructing and deconstructing the problem.

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We also had to have a firm grasp of the various authorizers and understand their levels of influence and why the problem matters to them.  Crawling the design space looking for existing and latent practices, positive deviance and best practice was equally new to us.  We got a better appreciation of the need for space, time and flexibility as you never really know the path that will lead to solving the problem.   We also need to fight the urge of transplantation of ideas as this is hardly ever leads to sustainability.  Rather, we should strive for dynamic sustainability and get the agency to drive and lead the processes including the testing and contextualizing plausible solutions against their peculiar situations and load bearing capacities.

Developed a new insight to the challenges of WASH coordination in Nigeria

Our learning through the course was against the backdrop of trying to unravel why the Federal ministry of Water Resources is not effectively coordinating the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector in Nigeria.  We successfully took a few small steps with some interesting outcomes.  For instance, we secured the needed authority to begin to address the absence of a WASH joint sector review.  Small as this win may seem, it came as a result of several iterations and application of the PDIA tools and techniques.  With the initial set back, the team suffered from its first problem iteration, it became apparent that addressing the group’s chosen problem will be far more challenging than we had anticipated.  There was also the sense that we may have bitten far more than we could chew as we began to unravel the real and underlying challenges of coordination in the sector.  For instance, we discovered that the authority we needed did not necessarily lie with the central figure (Minister) but other critical stakeholders that are external to the Ministry!   This in of itself led to the other critical realization that the sub-causes of some problems are outside the control or influence of the agency in charge.  Be that as it may, it is critical to work with the agency to identify and address those that are within their reach, however little it may appear as every success serves to bolster their confidence and increase the can-do spirit.

What’s next?

One thing for sure is that we will never tackle complex problems the same way as we did prior to the course.  With the PDIA course under our belts, we have individually resolved to immediately begin to put the new skills to good use.  Some of the ideas for the future include continuing the work with the Ministry of Water Resources to address the WASH sector coordination problem.  Other creative ideas include blending the PDIA search frame into a monitoring and evaluation logframe, application for personal and professional problem analyses and decision making.

To learn more, visit our website or download the PDIAtoolkit (available in English and Spanish).


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