by Jason Bremner, program director, Population, Health, and Environment
My mind is often flooded with indicators: population size, percent of the population living on less than a dollar per day, landholdings per household, average family size, and unmet need for family planning are a few that often float around in my head. Statistical research, however, never replaces the wealth of insight that can be gained through visiting communities, talking to people, and connecting faces and stories with indicators, results, and statistical associations.
I recently had such an opportunity while visiting the Southern and Oromia regions of Ethiopia, where PRB is building policy communications capacity with several organizations implementing integrated population, health, and environment projects.
During this field visit I came to the realization that a field visit is probably as intimate a communications opportunity as a project can have. People aren’t reading a one-pager or watching your perfectly crafted video. They’re actually there, talking with project staff, listening to beneficiaries, and seeing your efforts with their own eyes. Will you ever have a more captive audience? Probably not. Thus, while visiting the projects and talking with community members, I was constantly reflecting on the process itself, and this set of visits presented a whole spectrum of different experiences to reflect upon. So here are a few of my initial quick thoughts on field trip best practices.
Tip #1: Manage the Group Size.
On the first day of our visit, we loaded into buses and vehicles of various sizes for a visit to an integrated agro-forestry project site in the Gideo Zone of Ethiopia. The group included a mix of public health, environment, and development professionals, a gaggle of journalists, and a few local and national government representatives. From a few of the pictures you can sense that, despite the efforts of our hosts, when the bus let out people spread out every which way according to their interests. I’m afraid I too was guilty of wandering, and you can see from the pictures that a few of us found our way into a local health post and had a great talk with the community health extension worker. We learned a great deal about the project and the collaboration with local health workers, which unfortunately most of the group missed. Difficulty managing the large group also led to trouble staying on schedule, getting buses loaded, and understanding all of the amazing efforts we were seeing.
Keep group size small, split up large groups into well thought out small groups, and rotate small groups around to pre-organized stations where each group has the opportunity to repeat one aspect of the visit: staff presentation/discussion with beneficiaries/visualization of project activities/etc.
Tip #2: Plan for the Long and Unpredictable Road
I knew months ahead of time that a few of us would travel from Gideo Zone in the South to Metu Zone in the West, and that we would have a really, really long car trip, but even I was surprised by the multiple-day, dusty, bumpy ride (many thanks to the drivers who delivered us safely). Add in a flat tire, an ill-advised route change, and a few too many pre-dawn wake ups and we were all just about at our limit of tolerance for the car.
Plan your itinerary so that your visitors arrive at your site fresh and eager to hear about your work. Visitors will demand that vehicles travel more slowly, stop frequently for photos, and inevitably you will get flat tires along the most desolate parts of the road. Having an opportunity to get out and walk is welcome. Let your visitors know ahead of time that they’ll be walking through muddy fields or to special sites and they’ll likely be very happy to leave the vehicles behind and stretch their legs.
Tip #3: Provide Background Information and Data
During our first visit I heard little background about the first area we were visiting. I do remember something mentioned about the population density and about the average land holdings but otherwise the best resource I had on hand was a dated guide book. Maps and local data aren’t easy to come by publicly in Ethiopia, and when we did get glimpses of interesting data, including on the walls of health posts and by talking to project staff and beneficiaries, we often ravenously asked for more.
Create a little background information/flyer for visitors that tells about the area and provides some development indicators. Also try to provide at least a small map so people know where they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. Participants will likely read these things while in transit, so be brief. This isn’t the time to share your organizations five-year strategic plan. Focus your materials on a few illustrative results derived from your monitoring and evaluation efforts.
Tip #4: Respect Local institutions and Government Partners’ Needs
Project staff spend a lot of time nurturing relationships with community and government leaders. The organizations we visited with did a great job of coordinating with local leaders, providing opportunities for dialogue between community members and visitors, and even hosted a large community gathering and a gathering with local government officials. We learned much from these visits and got a clear sense of the organizations’ commitment to forming local partnerships
Make sure you have communicated who’s coming and why the visit is beneficial to the organization and the community ahead of time to local leaders and beneficiaries . Give local leaders the opportunity to meet outside visitors, and respect local customs for receiving visitors. Try to limit unnecessary time demands on the local people.
When organizing a field visit, there is often so much focus on the logistical aspects that we often forget about other communications aspects. The visit is an intimate communications opportunity that hopefully will leave a lasting and positive impression on your visitors. Such a visit requires special attention to logistics, background information and materials, the time and space for free and independent dialogue with staff and participants, and respect for local practices. I’m grateful to have these opportunities to visit with outstanding PRB partners and my thoughts above don’t begin to tell about all I learned. That’s a different story.