The INASP-led VakaYiko project aims to increase the capacity of policy makers to respond to research uptake needs. In this post, INASP’s Programme Assistant for the Evidence-Informed Policy Making programme, Shahenda Suliman, discusses some experiences from the VakaYiko programme of engaging with governmental institutions.
Managed by INASP, VakaYiko is a three-year project involving five organizations working as a consortium in Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The first year of the VakaYiko project witnessed the organizations establish and maintain working relationships with the following institutions in Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe:
- Ghana: The Civil Service Training Centre (CSTC)
- South Africa: The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA)
- Zimbabwe: The Ministry of Industry and Commerce; the Ministry of Youth, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment; and the Parliament of Zimbabwe
During the consortium’s quarterly meetings, the organizations discussed their early experiences attempting to secure engagement with these various institutions, and some common themes began to emerge across the three strands. This paper is an attempt to document some of the key approaches and challenges identified during the early days of engagement, whilst also reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages to working as part of a broader consortium.
Processes and hierarchies
One of the first things we learnt – and perhaps we were a bit naïve in this area – was the sheer level of processes and hierarchies that exist at the government level. For example, we really underestimated the time it took between getting verbal commitment from an institution and actually receiving the formal documents needed to start a project. In one meeting concerning perceived delays to the project, an exasperated partner explained: “all these supposed ‘delays’ we’re experiencing – they’re not delays; this is just how long things take here in government.” We’ve learnt a lot about the various processes and hierarchies within the institutions we are working with and the need to dedicate greater time to developing relationships prior to project launch.
On contextual relevance
One of the things that surprised me when I first started working in development (in the UK) was the way in which a number of practitioners spoke about relevance and context – almost like it were a checkbox you could tick. With VakaYiko, we don’t really ask “is this contextually relevant” (it’s much easier to tell when something isn’t), but rather “how can it become more relevant?” And whilst we try to always start with the political context, we also need to understand better the specific institution’s environment, an issue that is related to the previous point about how we underestimated processes.
For example, one can have a strong understanding of the politics of indigenization in Zimbabwe, without knowing much about how the Ministry of Youth, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment operates. The consortium may have had a combined understanding of the political context(s) and of EIPM, but our familiarity with the way these specific government institutions worked was generally limited. In both Ghana and South Africa, further partnering with people who had worked directly with the institutions and policy makers in question really helped us to secure support and commitment, as this indicated that the work would be (more) relevant to the specific institution’s needs.
Resisting the constraints of the project design
Although three years doesn’t seem like a lot in project time, much can happen politically in three years: policy makers get elected or ejected, ministries are dissolved or absorbed, government priorities change, and (sometimes) governments themselves change. On the face of it, there’s little sense in sticking rigidly to milestones and log frames as the political backdrop changes. In reality, when your milestones are linked to payments, there is an incentive to stick to the original plan even if you privately think it’s no longer the best plan. We are trying to resist this pitfall through the following:
- Not setting narrow milestones: For example, from our early experiences with this programme we realised that instead of having a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) as a milestone, we should have aimed for any evidence of commitment; the goal is commitment after all, not the MOU.
- Redesigning if necessary: Rather than just ask “is what we are doing relevant to the workplan?” there’s also a need to ask “is this workplan still the best way of doing what we want to do?” and be prepared to change or even overhaul a project if necessary.
- Taking an iterative approach if possible: In South Africa, the organizations adopted an approach whereby the diagnostic phase was scoped, but the change strategy and implementation phase remained open – this enabled them to effectively adapt to the evolving needs of the department.
Sitting fees for civil servants
There’s no shortage of text out there lamenting the ‘culture of sitting fees’ amongst civil servants in developing (mostly African) countries. Sometimes this descends into cultural essentialism and discussions about whether it’s considered impolite in some cultures not to gift civil servants with cars for attending meetings. For VakaYiko, it was more of a reputational issue; some civil servants expected sitting fees because donor-funded projects had a reputation for paying generous sitting fees. The issue was therefore less about their effectiveness in securing engagement, and more about the reputational risks and what this meant for the broader relevance and sustainability of the project.
“Engagement is a continuous process”
VakaYiko is now well into its second year with new approaches, new opportunities, and new challenges emerging. Engagement is a continuous process, and securing commitment is only the beginning – developing and sustaining the working relationships required to execute a collaborative project successfully requires substantial time and work. Documenting our early experiences has enabled us to reflect critically and openly on our approaches and although their relevance changes with time and space, we hope to continue with this process for the duration of the project and beyond.
For more information, see our recently published report, Reflections on VakaYiko’s first year.