Friday, February 20, 2015

What's an Objective??

We had an amazing training session last week with leaders of all 21 programs of the EEL-RCA. 
Willie Langdji (ELCA regional representative who lives in Yaoundé) and I lead the workshop. (Look we even had modern equipment like an LCD projector, Power Point presentation, and computers!)  It was fantastic for lots of reasons.  First of all, they had to come to us in Garoua Boulai – and they did.  Next, all programs were represented.  And, they all worked diligently and long to understand and begin to implement concepts related to planning, monitoring, and evaluation. (As I write, I am thinking, in particular of my teacher friends who do this constantly and all others who understand the value and hard work involved in planning!)  As an added bonus, we got time to interact socially in a place where we (especially the Central Africans) didn’t have to worry about security issues.  (Lots of side meetings took place, too, on other church-related topics.)

So, what is an objective?  Can’t we say it’s a goal?  In common parlance, we often use these words interchangeably, but they are not the same when considering planning.  A goal is where we want to be at the end; it is long-term and general.  My goal in writing this blog is to increase your understanding of life in CAR/Cameroon, in general, and of EEL-RCA and my work, in particular. I could never do that in one entry – or even five.  In fact, the goal is better reached when I am not the only one working to achieve it. 

Village School Program + Babaoua accountant
Women for Christ + EEL-RCA intern

Medical Programs working together
Village Savings and Loan 
 An objective, on the other had is specific.  It is the result desired for the participants.  Notice that I write an objective in terms of the “beneficiaries.”  I plan my activities, but need to be thinking of the ways they will impact the participants/students/faithful.  This is really a hard concept to embrace – even when people are SURE they understand.  I am thinking, first, of student teachers I have worked with in Pittsburgh.  Their lesson plans generally have objectives expressed in terms of what they, as the teacher, will do.  Of course, we need to be concerned with our actions, but we are not likely to get to our objective if we don’t think about how our information/actions are received by our “target audience.”

Well, it came as no surprise, then, that the leaders we worked with for 2 ½ days last week began by writing their objectives in terms of what they would do.  For example, one team wrote, “Increase the capacity of trainers to teach classes.” (I’m loosely translating from French here.)  The implied subject is their team/project.  The next step for many was often to “put the learners first,” changing the sentence to, “The capacity of the trainers to teach classes will be increased by the training session.” Do you notice what happened there?  The group put the sentence in the passive sentence so that even though the trainers are now at the beginning of the sentence, the action is still being done by the program personnel!  What is required is a huge shift in the way of looking at the task.  What do the project leaders want the trainers to do at the end of the sessions?  What is the result they expect? 

And, to make the task more challenging, the objective must be SMART!  (Look familiar teachers and planners?)  S=specific and simple; M=measurable; A=acceptable; R=reasonable; T=timely.  (I know that the Pittsburgh Public Schools added e for everyone to make the objectives SMARTe, but we stuck with the original SMART.)  So, then, the objective from the last paragraph could be, “At the end of the training sessions, trainers teach effectively so that more of theirs students achieve the minimum grade on exams.”  That’s SMART. 

During our training sessions last week, it took most of the first two days to get to the point where program leaders had written acceptable goals and objectives.  We worked on other things along the way and provided individual assistance and suggestions, too, but most of them got there!  People also got to the point where they felt they understood the difference between a goal and objective and why these both are important for their work.

We also worked on clearly identifying activities and all the needed resources – especially going beyond identifying how much money is needed to explaining how these amounts were calculated.  And, they reorganized their budgets according to activities to better track spending – and to fit into the new mandatory format.  This idea, too, was new for many – to think about the budget AFTER having thought out activities instead of saying, “We have so much money, now let’s start to think of what we can do.”

Oh, then we went into another “easy” task –identifying what tools are needed to evaluate each objective and activity as well as the indicators that the activity is successful or the objective met!  All of these tasks are, of course, interrelated and part of in-depth planning.

Church leaders have, also of course, planned in the past, but they have had little practice with in-depth planning – despite valiant efforts by partners and missionaries in the past.  But, in a country where people live day-to-day seeking ways to survive, the concept of planning for tomorrow, next week, or program activities for a year is foreign. 

I am proud of those who worked with us during this workshop.  Despite all the hardships that continue to surround them, they worked hard to understand and implement the skills being taught.  Most of them came away with a clear understanding of why they are asked to plan and with models of what it looks like.  One person said, “I have been completing forms for years, but never really understood them.  Now I understand how they are connected and what partners have been asking us to do.  I never could have done it without this workshop with explanations and the model forms provided.” 

We still have a long way to go.  Understanding during a workshop does not easily translate to doing in-depth planning with only the leadership teams of projects (some of whom were not at the workshop).  All projects and institutions are to have their year-long in-depth planning forms completed before the end of February.  We will better know then how close we were to meeting our objective, “All project/institution leadership teams write four clear, complete planning documents for 2015 before the end of February.”

The first team came to GB yesterday to talk about the work they had already completed since the workshop.  They had done good work, but had really only understood about 50% of what was presented – but I still applaud their efforts.  After we worked for three hours, they were closer to full understanding.  (Their next revision will show how much closer…)  I hope to be able to work with other teams in the next couple of weeks.  Certainly all planning documents will be reviewed with an eye to improvement.  Wait!  We are doing what we are asking them to do!  We are monitoring and evaluating their work and reflecting on ways to improve it…  I hope this will be another positive model for these hard-working, beginner long-term planners.
  P.S.  We ate well!  Local women prepared meals for us.  And, on Thursday, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Anne Langdji’s work in the region.  No, she couldn’t be there with us as she was with Micah in Yaoundé doing other work, but we toasted her and talked about her work with many of the workshop participants!  Here’s Willie raising a toast to her.  The picture of Anne was taken during a serious discussion at the Protestant Hospital of Garoua Boulai when she was here in November.

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