You Can't Always Get What You Want (Michael Mattingly)


A response by Michael Mattingly to the terms of reference provided by an international organisation for the design and delivery of an integrated training package on land governance, gender, and grassroots mechanisms.

As a land expert and an educator, I have designed and delivered training in Taiwan, Malaysia, India, Nepal, Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Mexico, as well as in London to people coming from many countries. I have prepared training manuals, and I am familiar with much of the material (in three concept papers already commissioned by the client: on land governance, gender, and grassroots mechanisms) that is to be assembled into the training package. I can deliver the outputs stated in the TOR (a package for training in the three subjects, both individually and together, and an initial training session), if that is what is wanted.

It is a matter of selecting and organising key principles from each of the three subjects into distinct modules of training materials and interrelating them, so that each module could be used alone, yet would make crucial links to the other two subjects, while the three presented together would achieve a measure of synergy - the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. One of the most obvious of these links is that a route to less gender discrimination regarding land rights is through a better relationship between the champions of just access, those denied it, and those who govern: a relationship that can be improved through more effective grassroots participation. A second is that local people can be motivated by land rights issues to learn about and use grassroots mechanisms that improve land governance.

I am familiar with a number of practical considerations for training packages. For example, clear instructions with each module for how to train with it (as I have provided in "Spatial Planning for Urban Infrastructure Investment: a Guide to Training and Practice") also allows the module to be a self- training tool for an individual. In addition to information and advice, a module should feature exercises that require the use of its contents, in order to reinforce learning and deepen understanding. For maximum distribution, it should be capable of easy downloading from an internet site, probably in black and white for low cost printing and photocopying.

Assuming that the three day training workshop specified in the TOR will test the draft training package, it will be important to obtain critical feedback and suggestions from the participants, not only during the event but at a later point when they have had time to reflect on the experience, even if this delays revision and production of the final package. Because the TOR does not make it clear, I can only guess that the workshop will take place in (a certain large city of the South), where it will be most convenient to organise and where client's staff can most easily observe its progress.

However, I have reflected on my training experiences (see for example "Self-help training for planning urban development"), as well as those of working at various levels of government in 4 countries and as a consultant in many others. Moreover, as an adviser to the management of a practice-oriented research programme of the British Government's Department for International Development, I have debated the merits of methods for the dissemination and up-take of new knowledge by the intended users. As a result, I am not confident that the implementation of the TOR can serve to achieve the aims of the enterprise.

Behind the TOR there does not appear to be a clear and realistic strategy for changing the behaviour of key actors and thus the state of things, a strategy in which the training package is likely to be an effective tool. There should be a good chance that knowledge conveyed by the training package will actually be put to use, if this consultancy is to be worthwhile. Close examination of the list of targeted stakeholders, and its implication that the training package can usefully impact on them all, gives rise to several reasons for doubt.

Who amongst the listed targets is able and willing to put the training to use towards the aims of the project? (Land professionals such as lawyers and surveyors, national and sub-national development policy makers, senior managers in land sectors and women's affairs agencies, donor and UN organizations, NGOs, academics, media, local people and community groups are the target training group named). For many there is likely to be little opportunity to apply the knowledge. Some already possess this knowledge but cannot use it, even if they want to. The TOR acknowledges the critical importance of context in these terms: "...efforts to address land issues have for too long focussed on technical, managerial, organizational, etc issues and often produced, if any, short-lived results. ... More and more practitioners are now realizing that here is a need to understand the political economy of land - the nature of vested interests and power relations in society - before any meaningful and lasting solutions can be found for land problems. ". A land professional or an administrator normally has little latitude for practicing new knowledge that challenges significant vested interests and power relations. The individual may lack the personal or commercial audacity to advocate new ways of thinking and acting, or may lack a mandate from superiors or the client, or lack the support of like minded colleagues, or be committed to the values and procedures established in an institution (which, after all, is how institutions achieve more efficiency and provide stability within systems), or not have the room for manoeuvre for other reasons. Like several of the others who are targeted (e.g. academics, the media) land professionals and administrators generally do not have the capacity to significantly change power relations regarding land, outside of their actions as instruments of those who do have this capacity. And academics who teach land professionals will be ineffective in the face of this obstacle.

For many who could, there will be little desire to put the training contents to use, whether or not it is new to them. They prefer to protect their vested interests. Yes, there are champions of poor people and of less gender discrimination among local and national politicians and senior managers, but they are few, not because their kind are uninformed and need training, but because at this time in countries of the South, policy makers do not generally find their support among poor people and women.

Who wants to receive training about these land issues? The TOR does not address demand, only implying it is there among the champions of the project's aims. If the training is truly demand driven, the trainees will want the knowledge enough to pay for it - in time and effort, if not in money. Ideally, participants would not even need the incentive of reimbursed expenses or that of a certificate of completion. To engage in this training or organise it for others, the targeted persons will have to make space in their lives for either, which means they must neglect some other activities. It is a matter of priorities. Those priorities will not be changed simply by making available a training package. For many in the targeted groups, these land issues are a matter of indifference - unimportant to their daily routines of work and their private lives. And even if training could be instrumental in changing their priorities, they will not be attracted to engage in it. We may wish they were more concerned to solve these problems, but wishing will not make it so. For example, politicians have been very rare and marginal participants in the training events I have witnessed - often absent and always distracted (and afraid to risk their opinions and images in open discussion). For most of them, none of the three modules is immediately attractive for the help it can give to strengthening a power base. The media do not want training but simply information, and the three topics do not offer many possibilities for a story. And do academics ever submit themselves to training?

The demand is very sensitive to the length of the training, and the sensitivity varies with the nature of the participant. This can be a major weakness of a broadly aimed training package. For example, because policy makers divide their attention at all times among a large number of priorities, they can rarely give attention to training that is not very short, particularly politicians and senior government officers. Community residents often find daytime sessions too difficult to attend, whereas NGO and CBO staff may prefer training during their working hours. Very junior professionals can be released for much longer training events than those who are senior.

Producing a training package is not sufficient to launch training activities. Those enjoying the benefits of the existing situation will not organise training that threatens it. Change-minded donor agencies and technical assistance agencies can press their government clients to mount training events. But this does not alter the interests of those who then have to undergo the training. Nor is it likely to change their opportunities to use the training afterwards, since the client government, in not asking for the training, betrays a shallow interest at best and ulterior motives (e.g. access to funds) at worst.

Thus, to succeed in transferring significant new knowledge to any one of the target groups listed will probably require events, tools, procedures and even content that are different from those for any other. To reach them all would require an enormous effort and variety of training packages. Yet, it is doubtful that more knowledge or awareness will make a difference in the impact that can be made by many of those whom the TOR has targeted. Of course, within the groups less likely there are the few who can and would use the contents of the training. There are politicians whose power base is being built or maintained among the poor people, women and other marginalised groups that this enterprise hopes to assist. There are some professional staff of public and private organisations that find room for manoeuvre because of delegated power or the neglect or incompetence of those they serve. They are among the champions of change mentioned in the TOR. But one cannot target, reach them with training, and mobilise their engagement by creating a one-size-fits-all training package. I acknowledge that good materials with instructions for use can guide the self-training of some the most determined, when widely distributed on the internet. Yet this is a rather hit or miss affair, with little apparent chance for much impact. It has to remain a secondary possibility of the project.

Bearing in mind these considerations, one strategy likely to have a positive impact through the production of a training package on land governance, gender and grassroots mechanisms is that which targets those most likely to use the training to change the status quo. These will be actor-stakeholders strongly motivated to obtain this knowledge because it will serve aims to which they give high priority. They will be groups whose priorities include political actions that can change the "vested interests and power relations" that block "lasting solutions" to land problems. I hold that local people and certain NGOs and CBOs are such groups. To achieve their founding purposes, NGOs and CBOs are motivated to learn and to inform others, who in turn are motivated by their dissatisfactions to use what they learn. Generally speaking, NGOs and local people - independently or through CBOs - have the potential for political action that can counter vested interests. Those with political and/or administrative or economic power are the vested interests themselves. Others who might be motivated to submit to training, such as professionals, lack the potential for the necessary political action.

In line with such thinking, it would make sense to create training materials having in mind local people and those NGOs and CBOs concerned with land governance, gender discrimination, and/or grassroots mechanisms. The training package would then be tailored as much as possible to the capacities, interests and needs of actor-stakeholders who appear the most likely to use the training and the most motivated to organise and/or participate in training activity. Properly done, this package can, at the same time, support self-training by strongly motivated individuals in other groups.

To act, these targeted users need not only technical information about the situations that exist, but also models of what can be done in response to unacceptable situations, plus the methods and skills to adapt these models to their particular circumstances, as well as to innovate when existing models do not help. At the same time, members of NGOs and CBOs can use the information to more effectively press authorities to change. They will understand better what is happening and what might be done in response.

A focus on CBOs, NGOs, and local people will also give a specific orientation to the pilot training event. One of the forms it could take would be that of a three-part discontinuous event to test many of the features of the training package. The first part could give training to staff from sufficiently interested CBOs and NGOs located in near to (the large city of the South). Sensitive to the amount of time they might willingly allocate to a speculative enterprise, it could be brief (just one day?). It would cover all three modules and integrate them. It would finish with the nomination by the participants of a smaller number from among them willing to accept the roles of trainers. During the second part, also brief, these proposed trainers could be trained in the delivery of the modules, both separately and integrated. The consultant could lead the training in both parts, and critical feedback could be obtained on both occasions.

A third training activity would take place perhaps one or two months later. This would be conducted by the newly trained trainers, probably individually but not necessarily so, where and when it was found possible and convenient for the organisation to which a trainer belonged and for those who wished to be trained, and without the consultant. The participants of this training could be local people, or they could be the staff of the trainer's own organisation. Adapting the training materials to the specific circumstances of each case could involve, in some, translation of the materials into a local language. As befitted the interests of the parent organisation, this training could be limited to only one module or it could present an integration of any two or all three modules. In addition to mechanisms for both trainers and trainees to provide critical feedback, observations and comments could be obtained from client's staff if they attended some of these sessions.

There are many possible variations on this basic concept: nourish the interest of stakeholders who are able and strongly motivated, so that they mobilise pressure for change as well as train other stakeholders who are strongly motivated to press and challenge those who maintain the status quo and vested interests.

Michael Mattingly
15 August 2008

The views expressed in 'Recent News & Reflections' are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the governments, organisations or agencies with whom they have been working.