Saturday Morning Coffee

International Affairs Specialist by day, Blogger Enthusiast by night. This is a sneak peek into my world that should be enjoyed with ample time and a good and very strong cup of java.

Lessons Learned

Mornings have never been a easy for me. I always dreaded the inevitable sound my alarm would make and wake me out of a blissful sleep. Even worse were those early winter mornings when the alarm sounded before the sun rose and subsequently showers often ended 30 min longer than they should have simply because the heat of the shower and lack of sunlight led my ever-too-sleepy self to fall back in to dream world while leaning against the shower door.

This habit, however, was successfully put to rest while living in the Caribbean. In fact, mornings become my favorite part of the day! Just before the dogs start barking, before the gardeners come out, I  lay in bed and listen to my fan blow cool air over my bed and around my room and realize just how lazy a person can be.  I had once thought it impossible to be able to work in a hot climate because of the countless distractions there were from prohibiting work getting done. So now, I got to test it!

My first few weeks were hectic – finding the house, starting work, getting stuff for the house, meeting new friends – and the heat was truly unbearable, like trying to swallow a  brick wall, and incidentally made me lazier and more tired. From about April to September, the islands are less tropical and more a hot and dry desert which makes fruit trees barren and vegetable patches bare. Thankfully, there was ice cream 🙂

My favourite part about my job was being able to understand and contribute to each and every program and track its progress. Granted statistics have never really been my thing, so I had been a little nervous when numbers suddenly appeared on the job. Slowly, though, I realized just how significant they can be in judging how a program is going and whether or not results are to be achieved.  So I approached data and tables cautiously and, with the help of an amazing mentor,  even began to develop my own! I learned how to develop indicators that were meant to track progress. I learned how to develop charts and analyze results (I knew Excel was good for something!). Ironically, reading data and understanding it was never a problem – perhaps my fear was all in my head?

Now, I can’t understand why I was ever nervous in the first place and more than anything, I understand the need for Research – both qualitative (i.e interviews, focus groups, observations) and quantitative (ie. surveys, case studies, correlational study) and why research inquiry should be done BEFORE decisions are made, both at the project level and the policy level. For instance, why should we implement a project when the root causes aren’t being addressed?

A really interesting case stuck with me throughout my time at UNICEF and was so exemplary of the importance of research; An HIV/AIDS campaign directed at adolescents had been running for some time, trying to raise the awareness of the disease, how to protect yourself and where to get tested. Simple enough, right? Before the next round of funding could be applied, it was time to conduct an Evaluation / Impact study to examine just how effective the campaign was – were infection rates dropping? were more people being tested? The study revealed the success of the awareness campaign – there was ample knowledge about what the disease was, symptoms and how to protect yourself. The study also showed that despite this knowledge, specifically girls were refusing to ‘say no’ or protect themselves. My reaction = huh?!?!?!?! A giant stigma is attached to HIV/AIDS throughout the Caribbean and this study exemplified that.  The point, which became so clear to me, was that the direction of the project should then shift from an awareness campaign to one that promoted self empowerment and respect.  Without the research, the project would have been addressing something that was entirely unnecessary – think of all the effort and funding that would have been wasted!

Now that I’m back in Canada, I’m trying to apply my knowledge, both from working with women & children’s issues and working in Monitoring & Evaluation, to another initiative, just as meaningful and just as rewarding as the last. It’s going to be tough to top a Caribbean island, but I’m certain there are loads of places that could use help in their project implementation and an oversight mechanism to ensure that research was being used and getting out to the right people.

I was recently discussing this disconnect between research and project implementation and policy with my local MPP, who completely agreed with me and referenced a recent example where the Ontario Ministry of Education has just unveiled a program to help graduating high school students with their applications to university and for OSAP…. Full Stop…Taking a minute to let this concept sink in, my first thought was “Well, if they can’t fill out the forms, how well are they going to do at University?” Was research actually done suggested that this was the best use of taxpayer funds?

Universities are by far the best and well-known centres where knowledge is generated and where anyone can go and obtain information about a  given topic, and if it’s not there, at least they might be able to tell you where to go.  In my ignorance, I expected a team or division to be housed deep within the registrar’s office of every university, working to do just that – bring research and studies to the public; make sure results are shared and findings revealed to those that could benefit.  Sadly, I learned differently when I attended a Knowledge Mobilization Expo for York Region a few weeks ago and was shocked to hear that University’s were just now developing ways to get their research out to members of the community, city and nation.  How disappointed I was (and a little embarrassed) to have assumed that this process had been long in existance – not only that, but also that this phenomenon is still in its infant stages and only a couple of universities in Canada are doing it (!) Tell me again, what’s the point of doing research if it can’t be disseminated to those that can most benefit from it?

Despite having had lunches on the beach, soaked in thermal springs and learned to play the steel pan, there was ample opportunity for professional development and I learned a great deal from my posting. My views on social change and how it can be achieved has certainly been influenced and I hope that I’ll soon be able to apply knowledge to practice while in Canada.

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One comment on “Lessons Learned

  1. luke gustafson
    04/07/2011

    Really insightful and informative Julie. You write well.

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This entry was posted on 27/06/2011 by in Canada, Caribbean, Economics, Evaluation, HIV/AIDS, Life Skills, M&E, policy, Project Management, Women's Rights, youth.

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