Thursday, October 16, 2014

Partners’ F2F Volunteer Ellen Lewis Pilots Long-Term Organizational Development Assistance and Feminist Systems Thinking in Nicaragua

I was fortunate to spend two extended periods of time (March–April 2014) and (May–June 2014) with F2F Nicaragua. During these visits I engaged in two roles. First, I piloted the role of a longer-term (instead of the normal two-week assignment) F2F volunteer Organizational Development (OD) Consultant. In this capacity, I provided OD support to the Nicaragua staff in the identification and orientation of new ‘hosts’ using two F2F assessment tools (the baseline from and the Organizational Development Index). My second role was as a joint F2F volunteer and doctoral student from the University of Hull, where I worked in partnership with the Universidad Nacional Agraria (UNA) to introduce and culturally adapt a systems thinking methodology that asked people to reflect on their micro and small businesses and identify areas of improvement based on their reflections. 
F2F Volunteer Ellen Lewis provides training on Feminist Systems Thinking.

Organizational Development

The relatively new discipline of OD sprouted in the 1940’s and draws from many fields of study, notably psychology, sociology, organizational behavior, anthropology, biology, and the systems sciences. OD (see Sonoma State University has become the multi-discipline lens through which responses to increasingly complex organization and human systems are studied and understood, creating improvements that are sustainable.

With F2F as a backdrop, and systems thinking as a context, F2F staff and I conducted organizational needs assessments of new F2F hosts primarily in the dairy and livestock sector. By identifying strengths, weaknesses and the needed support, the F2F field staff in partnership with host organizations were able to identify and request the appropriate technical assistance needed to strengthen and increase production, marketing (local and national), animal husbandry practices and gender equitable participation. The Nicaragua staff, a group of hard-working individuals, were remarkable in their commitment to support their hosts which ultimately will facilitate increased access to domestic and international value-added beef and dairy markets. Furthermore, this outstanding group of people working with the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Program Evaluation team identified specific and measurable strategies to increase the participation, decision making, and leadership opportunities (access and abilities) of women in business matters of the cooperatives at the three organizational levels of the cooperative: board of directors, management, and staff and local activities provided to producers.
Local training participants learn how keep the boat afloat by working as a whole.

Feminist Systems Thinking

As in many countries, Nicaragua's rural women are largely charged with labor intensive household tasks along with the demands of any small business enterprise, primarily the making and selling of food products (sold on the street, on buses, to their neighbors). From my conversations with different women these activities are also barriers to their interest in taking more active leadership roles on boards, business projects or community efforts. 

In an effort to create awareness about how to mitigate some these barriers from the women and men’s perspectives, systems thinking concepts were introduced as tools with which to analyze their businesses and provide an atmosphere of problem solving and dialogue. Systems thinking is an expansive umbrella term providing many choices of theories and methodologies that can be used to frame our understanding of the world especially when issues are complex. Complex issues have longer-term implications, more people and interdependent components, high levels of uncertainty, or the presenting problem is not really as such the problem. Systems thinking, therefore, helps us to explore, better understand, and identify possible avenues for improvement through action.   

Working in partnership with F2F stakeholder groups (e.g., staff, volunteers, hosts and partners), Anne Stephens’ Feminist Systems Thinking (FST) principals and OD strategies were culturally-adapted and introduced to strengthen rural businesses. We held six participatory workshops with 73 participants over a three month period; in each, the participants adapted the methodology to ensure cultural practicality and relevance going forward, as they replicate the workshop. The five FST principles are:  adopt a gender sensitive approach; value voices from the margins; incorporate the environment; select appropriate methods; and undertake action that promotes desirable and sustainable social change.
Interactive activities or "dinámicas" add fun to the workshops.


As always, I am so grateful for the care and kindness that the F2F staff here (and in Washington) have so graciously given me in this endeavor, particularly since it was not a typical two week assignment. I felt equally supported in my role as a volunteer as I did in my research capacity. Everyone wanted me to succeed, and so I feel I have. I believe that the new country strategies that are being put into place will have a significant impact on the country’s effort to support people as the exit poverty in the most respectful and thoughtful manner. I look forward to visiting Nicaragua in a year to see how things have progressed if time and circumstances allow.

1 comment:

  1. Ellen, I really enjoyed reading your blog and feel that it reflects the daily issues that rural women face in many parts of the developing world.