Making a connection in difficult times

This morning I woke up to a flurry of whatsapp messages from my cousins in the UK.

The messages drew from our respective memories of making child-hood visits to our grandparent’s house, down in Ramsgate, Kent.

What felt, for my brother and me back then in the early to mid 1980’s, like a life-time spent in the back seat of our parent’s car (playing ‘I-spy’, stopping at service stations, before – at last – pitching up alongside the seafront, and knocking on the pale green back-door, awaiting our Grandad’s inevitable greeting of “not today, thank-you”) was brought back to life in the moments of recall described in my cousins’ whatsapp chatter.

The instant recall and sentiments that popped up in these messages was palpable. Our Nan’s signature offerings (cherry cakes, iced fingers, Dandelion and Burdoock fizzy drinks, apple and blackberry pies) alongside our grandparent’s familiar household ornaments (a glass-topped table displaying our school photos, KP salted peanuts in a bowl, and a walnut cracker proudly stood between a family of wooden elephants) and then the excitable excursions we all took in between being served up huge quantities of food (down to the games arcade, “moving the flags on the putting green” and throwing little parachuted plastic soldiers off the white cliff tops).

The picture painted was so very satisfying and instant. I sensed we’d all happily opened our hearts to it, and to being back there again.

me and matt
Me, Mum and my brother, Matt, in our Grandparents’ garden in Ramsgate, circa 1980.

Amid so much turmoil right now, these moments are sacred and unifying.

When markets recover and normality is restored, regardless of how shaped it will be from these recent times, there is a sense (shared by some commentators) that our ambitions and values, and sense of civic responsibilities, might have been enhanced in a positive way. That we will, perhaps, think more about each other, and less about our own desires.

Part of the anxieties surrounding these present and future scenarios could well be the ‘not knowing’. The lack of control we have in the current moment. The diminishing returns being presented to those of us unaccustomed to such a reality.

Already, in the international development sector (the core realm from where my definitelymaybe posts typically begin their journey) much is being written about the fact that, for years now, we’ve designed development programmes for marginalised communities around the world that ultimately try to build people’s capacities to be resilient in the face of crisis. How to best absorb, adapt and transform when “shocks” occur.

The related concepts and tools published about resiliency are multiple.

The learning cycles that unfold in typical social development programming have never been easy to fully articulate, nor, ironically, to learn from. I imagine, in current times, powerful lessons will be captured about resiliency, from countries around the world who are themselves locking down right now, freezing their economic development, and moving into unprecedented waters.

The reasons that programme learning cycles might not be up to scratch are many. There can, for example, often be no clear learning strategy made early on in the design of a programme, which then undermines learning at a later date. There are awkward funding processes, too, which mean organisations aren’t always readily resourced to invest in their partnerships, and in their learning, because they are under pressure to chase down the next grant.

I think there also exist fundamental divides between the different stakeholders engaged in social programming. Namely, and crudely, those designing and implementing and then those on the “receiving end”. Whilst there are a plethora of human-centred design frameworks growing in number (where the emphasis on design is led by “end-user”) too often organisations are not localising their solutions.

We devise a micro-loan product, for example, without properly testing the assumption that micro-loans are needed or desired. A training course might provide women with new skills and the confidence to earn better income, without involving their husbands in the process, and considering the consequences of the dis-empowerment which this new dynamic might cause the men.

Right now, one of the outcomes of Covid-19 is that some people are turning more attention “inwards”, to their families and friends – looking for answers, for reassurances, for distraction, for compassion and empathy, for something light-hearted, something human.

These acts of unity and solidarity are, in many ways, the same acts playing out everyday, and across every local community, acts born out of survival and respect, given freely and with humility. From the street-vendors I pass here in Saigon, to the farmers harvesting rice in the fields outside the city, and the young woman working in a garment factory and sending home her earnings.

There is a unifying chemistry binding people here in Vietnam who are, one day at a time, hustling to make a living, coping, ready for things to change one way or the other, determined to keep moving forward.

Theirs is as wide spanning a connection, in a country of 96 million, as can be made. A rich network of knowledge and intuition, of grit and resilience.

Have we, perhaps, missed the simplicity of answering some of the world’s weightiest development challenges by trying to invent solutions too complicated, with processes and systems too politically charged, when the actual answers are staring us in the face?

What does sustainable development look like beyond the horizon of this current pandemic, and in light of what can be learnt from it, I wonder?

That is to be seen.

However, it feels our biggest chance to learn from one another – on so many levels – and to put that learning into practice in the future, could come from these inward facing instincts and, indeed, in this very moment of our time.

nan and grandad
My Grandparents, Ron and Lilian, with my Mum and her brother, Brian. Early 1970s.