Rules of engagement: China, Africa and mapping a sustainable, biodiverse future

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By Melanie Ryan, Senior Programme Manager, Luc Hoffmann Institute

As a facilitator, one of the first things you do in a workshop is get participants to set the ‘rules of engagement’ for the time they will spend together. How would they like to be treated and how do they commit to treating each other? For people who rarely work together who must agree to ask hard questions and spend long days planning complex projects, a harmonious yet constructive environment is critical. What’s more, with international collaborations, the logistical, time and environmental (carbon) costs of meeting face to face are increasing so maximising the time together is essential.

The ACACIA project, led by the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) is an interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral collaboration. It aims to link research, capacity building and engagement to enhance planning related to Chinese investment in growth corridors in Tanzania and Kenya. Partners come from the UK, China, and both African countries.  Supporting this endeavour, the Luc Hoffmann Institute team helped design and convene a recent three-day workshop in Nairobi. With the focus on understanding how to catalyse change and steer investment so that growth corridors are more sustainable, ecologically and socially, it was an intense three days.

Despite the demands, the mix of researchers, WWF practitioners, consultants and NGO leaders proved to be a real strength in developing a theory of change that will guide the next stage of the project. Diverse views and perspectives allowed us to redefine the problem and refine the pathways to change.

Back to the rules for the week – collectively the group decided to:

  1. Stay focused.
  2. Find a balance between listening and talking.
  3. Minimise other work during discussion times.
  4. Be thoughtful and critical.
  5. Have fun!
  6. Build the foundations for future teamwork.

These rules make a lot of sense for developing any theory of change, particularly ones related to complex, interdisciplinary problems. Theory of change planning is more than designing a project and activities. It is an opportunity to think through how change happens and ways to define and measure it. The group discussed how to define an outcome, whether it would be ‘good enough’ if they could only get so far in generating change, and how they could harness existing efforts in the region while making useful new contributions.

For theory of change to work we must ask ourselves and each other challenging questions. Are we aiming high enough; are we using resources wisely; do we share a common language, and how is our project different to others? This means we (and our donors) can be more confident in the project design as well as anticipate some of the criticisms that might come from broader stakeholders.

To me, these rules reflect a desire for rigour, solid foundations, determination, mutual respect, openness and, importantly, finding some joy despite the challenges. It’s a lot to ask from three days but I hope the project can draw on these foundations over their four-year journey. Maybe we can all draw on these rules in our own quests towards a sustainable and biodiverse future.

A colleague recently said to me “a tiny nudge can still make a difference. If you nudge a battleship, you send a large thing in motion on a new pathway”. Theory of change is the first step in making sure your nudge is well planned and well intended.

Find out more about the ACACIA project.