My research into ASSAR workshops: The story so far…

18 Aug 2017 - 10:15

Teresa Perez, a sociologist working on Transformative Scenario Planning, gives a refreshing look at the ASSAR project, in story form.

By Teresa Perez

Teresa Perez is a sociologist, trying to find out the extent to which participatory scenario processes are a suitable way to tackle issues related to climate change. Last month, she attended the ASSAR annual meeting in Ghana. She was allotted five minutes to speak about her research and, in a burst of creativity, she decided to introduce her research as a story. She structured the narrative from a skeleton that Prof Lucia Thesen uses in her writing workshops at the University of Cape Town.

Once upon a time, environmental scientists thought that weather patterns were becoming more unpredictable and extreme. They anticipated that people all over the world would be adversely affected, but especially social groups identified as already vulnerable and marginalised. In an effort to try to help, a project called ASSAR was funded to work in semi-arid regions. One of the main ways the project tried to make a difference was by organising a series of workshops in eight hot spots. The idea was that different scenarios about the future could be used as a way to decide on the best plan of action. Everyone in each region worked hard and had the interests of future generations at heart, although no one knew for sure if the scenario workshops would actually make a difference. So I was employed to find out what (if anything) had changed as a result of peoples’ participation in scenario processes.

Although I was happy to be part of a big, well-funded, international project - with huge potential to make a difference – I really struggled with a number of things. Firstly, I very am sceptical about development projects. Secondly, I have a lot of baggage about being British. Thirdly, I felt pulled in a lot of directions with regard to the design of my research with a lot of pressure to show impact. But scenario processes require a significant time investment. The team in East Africa went through several iterations of composing a workshop plan and drafting four scenarios to present and deconstruct in their workshops. Similarly in Namibia, the scenario writing process was time consuming and expensive. It occurred to me, even if it were a success, who would likely have the funds to replicate such an involved process without the backing of a big funder? Also TSP (Transformative Scenario Planning, developed by Reos Partners) is supposed to be an 18 month process and one that is very open ended. This means that any actions taken are expected to come from stakeholders. Hence if stakeholders choose not to do anything, there is potentially no impact.

If you are reading this and you spot someone in the corner of the room furiously writing, don't be alarmed, it's just a sociologist. Carry on.

For the purpose of ASSAR, the TSP process had been modified so as to span approximately 6 months. Even though the process had been significantly condensed, the weight of expectation on the shoulders of the Reos Partners’ team remained significant throughout the project. They coached each team and took charge of facilitating the process in several of the regions. However, the TSP method insists on bringing together stakeholders with influence, from different backgrounds, with different perspectives, in the same room. This posed a potential problem for contexts where talking freely in front of others, regardless of race/class/caste/gender or religion is not a given. Aside from features of the methodology that raised questions for me about how this technique helped vulnerable and marginalised groups, the facilitators were from South Africa. Like me, the Reos Partners’ team did not speak any of the local languages and had limited knowledge of the geographical and social contexts in which they were expected to work, having been parachuted in from South Africa - a country that is stereotyped as thinking itself superior to others on the African continent. With all this swimming around in my mind, I worried about how I would be perceived. Moreover, I worried about whether a development project, funded from the global north, led by teams of people in positions of relative privilege, who hold their annual meeting in venues frequented by presidents, was best placed to bring about social change in a way that was somehow different to the numerous development initiatives that had come before it.

But then I thought that maybe, even though each process was different in each country, this was an opportunity to compare and contrast peoples’ experiences. I put my cynicism to one side, and allowed myself to entertain the thought that the ASSAR project could be a game changer.

So what I did was collect a range of different types of information to better understand the strengths of each process, what had been achieved so far and how events had unfolded. I watched each workshop and made lots of notes. I gave out a questionnaire at the end of each workshop to find out people’s immediate thoughts.

I interviewed a sample of stakeholders to get insights into how the workshop was different to the others they had been to. Was there anything unique that was worth replicating? Or are scenarios seen as yet another development tool that will have its time and then go out of fashion? Had it changed their knowledge and understanding of issues in any way? And how might their participation in ASSAR workshops help their existing work and future plans?

I spotted this lovingly re-purposed piece of workshop memorabilia, at a hotel in Kenya where I stayed along with the numerous development workers that flock here.

I found that overall people were very positive, which I was highly suspicious of. I worried that people felt compelled to be complimentary, so in interviews I started to play devil’s advocate.

In Namibia, I implied that the process was long and boring. Everyone that I spoke to disagreed and said they had been impressed with how much had been achieved in two days. When compared to the numerous workshops that some stakeholders go to, they preferred TSP because there was momentum towards achieving a goal. Ordinarily, they sat in workshops and meetings having circular discussions that went nowhere. For example, where people got hung up on what a concept meant which ultimately de-railed the discussion.

At the end of the second workshop in Namibia, I suggested that the scenario planning element could be cut out completely. Again, interviewees disagreed. They explained the utility of scenarios as one that helped people to think outside the box, of issues they might not have otherwise considered. It also forced people to think long-term rather than focussing only on the immediate problems. Scenarios could therefore be a way to overcome the constraints of thinking only in 4-5 year government cycles.

In India, there was a stakeholder who claimed that she met people that she would have been unlikely to meet otherwise. She was already an avid campaigner in her local area which relied on water from the local lake. Up until the workshop she had been only seeking the ear of government. She realised that there were many other people who shared her interest in conserving lakes in Bangalore. Hence there were many other actors that she could work with. In the workshop she found out that rather than boiling her water, tablets were cheaply available to make water safe to drink. This is by no means transformative in terms discussed at this meeting (See Few et al, In press), but it does mean that there is at least one person whose life is a bit easier as a result of the ASSAR project.

I tried to seek out stakeholders who were difficult or disruptive. However, even when I spoke to two people who I thought would be highly critical, I was surprised by how little criticism they had. One person said that TSP was no different to a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. Another said that it would have been more efficient to have a conference. Beyond this I am struggling to find many negatives. My search continues.

Further reading:

For more information about Transformative Scenario Planning, read posts about the workshops in Ghana, Mali and Namibia.

For more information Transformative Scenario Planning, read posts by Reos Partners here or contact the team directly here

For more information about Participatory Scenario Analysis, read posts about the workshops in Kenya.

For more information about academic literacies, contact the Centre for Higher Education Development here.