Monday, February 15, 2010

 

Catharsis

I am setting down some thoughts about what I believe we have been creating in Massar, as part of the project’s record, as a form of touchstone while life, Syria and the project move onward, and also as a background to explain more about why Massar is as it is, and a counterbalance to some prevailing perceptions.  When the whole Massar team are told by the Trust CEO they are doing things wrong, that they are seen as a spoilt project, that Massar is a “problem”, it seems timely to put forward an alternative perspective, not least about the viewpoint of the Trust itself.  Massar is different, certainly, but with reason. Whether that reason can or should remain current is a question for others to conclude.  If it remains valid, the message in this paper is that it has to be appreciated, fought for and protected; if taken for granted it will dissipate and vanish, and Massar will become just another thoroughly conventional, worthy NGO.

Massar has been described on several occasions by its patron as “a small revolution”.  This was not criticism but praise; a small revolution was what Syria needed, and what Massar was intended both to be and to create.  Massar is about shaking the tree, making a difference, breaking a cycle.  At the same time it is a project with an intellectual framework and sense of values behind what it does; it is not seeking simply to break old patterns of thinking but to shift them towards something active, positive and self-directed.  Massar is aiming to build from within, not impose from outside.  Any small revolution would still be founded on principles and a sense of what was good.  In a similar way to those parents and teachers who often initially see the Green Team as providing aimless “fun” – not serious learning – and only later appreciate the purpose and the structure of what is going on in the activities, so Massar has an underlying learning and development structure even when on the surface it may look frivolous and random.  That structure is laid out in its original project initiation documents (citizenship/ diffusion of responsibility) and the early Me++ content concepts.

One fundamental premise of Massar is that it is obsessive about its beneficiaries. At a very early (2005) presentation in Lattakia of Massar’s touring programme to its Steering Committee, I made short introductory speech in which I welcomed all the VIPs visiting (The First Lady, three senior Ministers, the Head of UNDP and the Governor of Lattakia) and said that for Massar the real VIPs present were the ones attending the workshops: the children, our beneficiaries.  Trite though it was, that was and remains a completely sincere statement of Massar’s position: nothing matters more to us than engaging and inspiring our beneficiaries.

Later, in a similar way, we refused to hack about a touring event in Kafer Souseh to suit the demands of a visiting dignitary’s head of protocol (made on the basis that she could not possibly be expected to walk up some stairs); the event was for the benefit of the children, the changes would completely disrupt their experience, and the guest would please take the programme as it was.  In spite of much pressure, Massar held its ground, and of course the event went perfectly smoothly.  Part of Massar’s strength (part of its small revolution) is that it has principles, sticks to them, and the interests of our beneficiaries are chief among these.

This matters because if the children do not see Massar as being completely on their side, or if Massar is seen as part of the establishment, then both our rationale and chances of success disappear or are compromised. That does not mean we take children completely on their own terms; as said above we operate in a framework of what is right. But it does mean that young people trust Massar to trust them and see the best in them; to see them in terms of potential not as risk.  This places Massar between Home and School as the third place in young people’s lives, where guidance and rules exist but young people feel able to explore, create and share in a space that is “theirs”.  As a Massar volunteer said, “we have the potential to be bad, but Massar allows us to discover our potential to be good”.

At the same time as enabling young people to explore, Massar must have the trust and confidence of parents and communities that their young people are safe, and that being with Massar is not pushing them outside a cultural comfort zone or storing up future trouble with the establishment.  Where these boundaries lie is often unclear and not even consistent within communities, and for Massar any and every event or programme is subject to fine tuning and adjustment as the particular characteristics of one location or group and another are taken into account. Arguably this is a criticism of the project’s development (it should be building pockets of replicable practice).  Equally arguably, Massar is in a process of constant evolution and change and will be for some years yet, there is little benefit in building one-size-fits-all solutions, and in the context of generational change four years is a tiny period. 

One element of the way Massar (at least at senior level) thinks of itself is that if Massar were successful, there would be no further need for us.  If, as we are, Massar is about empowering young people to shape their lives then Massar is in the business of making itself redundant. Another is that we don’t mind other organisations being in our territory, even those blatantly copying what we do.  For Massar, the more the merrier – IF it all has the effect of inspiring and engaging young people.

A third is the empowerment of Massar people at all levels of the organisation, founded on respect and decent treatment for all, giving them the chance to grow and feel part of the whole.  We encourage risk-taking, accept the possibility of failure, welcome the chance to learn from it. People are able to fail, learn and do better. It's tough for some to appreciate, tougher to practise, and I can say that we haven’t always done well at it, but it remains fundamentally the Massar way.  One thing that must be acknowledged by all is that the Massar team routinely goes above and beyond any reasonable expectation in order to deliver its activities, and does so cheerfully and wholeheartedly because it believes in the value of what it does.

Massar is not about an organisation, not about a building, not about The First Lady, not about personal prestige.  It is about building an attitude, making things happen, creating social value. Massar is exploring new territory; there is little precedent for what we do anywhere let alone in Syria. So our working model is inherently experimental, learning, changing and responsive.  We are not repeating or replicating a well-established template – no two days of Massar business are alike.

All of this, arguably no less today than when Massar was founded, is essentially counter-cultural in Syria, running against the grain of how things “should” be.  I believe that this almost perverse desire to not fit into moulds is essential to Massar’s DNA, and at the same time one of the most difficult characteristics to maintain as part of the organisation’s culture.  The easiest, and the most damaging, default path for Massar is to slip back into conformity in a society where pressures to conform are overwhelming; to observe hierarchy because it suits the hierarchical attitudes all around it, to make itself the centre of its attention rather than its beneficiaries.

Massar’s founder once also said that she hoped the Trust could embody the best of Massar.  That was never likely to happen; the drivers for the Trust, its sense of priorities and its very philosophy were wholly different from those behind Massar. From early discussions where a suggestion that “humility” should be a core characteristic of the Trust was met by the management consultants’ response that on the contrary what was needed was “a lot more arrogance”, it has been clear that the philosophy of Massar and the emerging Trust were significantly different, indeed at odds.  From its inception the Trust has thought and behaved as an establishment organisation. 

If Massar is “about” its beneficiaries, what is the Trust “about”?  The answer, at least for the last three years is that the Trust has been about itself.  All that has mattered to the Trust has been that the levers and cogs of the (increasingly complex) Trust machine are put in place.  Whether they are connected to any real-world outcomes or benefits, or even to each other, whether they make the Projects more efficient or effective, has simply not been a consideration.  What has mattered is that an organisation is formed, with all the attendant departments, structures, systems, policies and processes that an organisation “must” have.  The development of all these have been derived from the past experience of those in charge of its various pieces – nothing has been built for purpose, or with a view to how it helps fulfil the vision of an empowered society, or with an eye to innovation.  Certainly nothing has started from an “if in doubt, leave it out” or “less is more” premise.
The Trust’s vision, of an organisation delivering public good in the form of an empowered society would logically have given primacy to those elements – the Projects – which most directly fulfilled that vision.  A core determinant of Trust’s effectiveness would have been whether the Projects were better able to deliver their activities (in terms of effectiveness or efficiency) as part of the Trust than as stand-alone entities. A critical measure of “Service” Divisions would have been the extent to which they added value to Projects.  Instead all have developed around local optima, and the questionable assumption that the Trust should best be one homogeneous uniform entity, where one size fits all.  A clear value-added proposition for the Trust, externally or internally, has never been developed.

The result has been that Massar has spent more and more of its energy in servicing the needs of the Trust, however last-minute, time-consuming, irrelevant or prejudicial.  Massar has helped, contributed and supported the Trust in many ways.  What Massar has certainly resisted has been putting the interests of providing for its beneficiaries second to providing for the Trust.  More significantly Massar has also fought against having its set of values, its culture, subsumed into those of the Trust, and so now is seen as "a problem", or "spoilt". That it should be regarded as such, for such a reason, and by such insignificant thinkers and under-achievers, is to me the far greater problem, for Massar, for the Trust and for the young people of Syria.

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