In December 2018 we received our first messages.
They were handwritten, covering the blank sides of recycled paper. Some were notes scrawled in big block letters, others more delicately-recorded paragraphs. The worn edges and dirt smudges of the slips of paper hinted that these messages exchanged several hands and traveled long distances before reaching us. Indeed, in that first month, 45 of the 55 comments we received were from rural communities – towns still untouched by electricity and more than an hour-long, dusty and bumpy drive from city center.
Students, teachers, and parents had all written to us on a special form in our colorful and fun print news magazines. There were not only suggestions among the submitted comments (“PJL courses should be twice a week.”), but also messages of thanks and stories of change (“Projet Jeune Leader helps the school and there are many things the school does not teach, but you do.”; “Since PJL arrived, the kids’ minds have opened, they now respect hygiene, and have good behavior.”)
We were pleasantly surprised that our call for feedback on Projet Jeune Leader had worked. We were outright stunned at how well.
This initial experiment to solicit feedback from our students, parents, and partner schools was part of a larger pilot project to improve our organization’s accountability. In September 2018 we embarked on a journey with the CIVICUS Resilient Roots initiative to strengthen meaningful relationships with the groups we serve – what is known as primary constituent accountability.
Alongside 14 other pilot projects from around the world, we developed innovative accountability mechanisms to improve transparency, trust, and responsiveness in our work.
In practice, this meant figuring out the answers to three main questions: How can we collect quality feedback from our constituents? How can we systematically use this feedback to improve our program? And most importantly, how do we report back to our constituents about if and how we used their feedback – a process known as “closing the feedback loop”?
Answering these questions required some ingenuity to adapt to the local context of where we work in Madagascar. Our feedback mechanisms needed to take into account the challenges of constituents’ poor access to information and communication technologies, strong courtesy bias, low literacy, and very rural and distributed locations. Using SurveyMonkey, e-newsletters, social media, or even phone calls to communicate with our constituents was definitely out of the question! Even written paper surveys or face-to-face interviews were unrealistic options in our resource-constrained setting, where low literacy and ruralness are the norm.
After a year of creating, testing, and refining several different feedback mechanisms, we ended up with a set of tools that are now institutionalized into our organization and operations. This includes our paper-based constituent magazines, rapid rural appraisal activity through “bean-voting” with students, and annual symposiums with key partner school champions, among several other simple internal changes to continually and rapidly collect, use, and respond to feedback.
So, what happened after a full-year of trying to be more responsive, transparent, forthcoming – in other words, more accountable – to our constituents?
For one, we improved our capacity to communicate with clarity and creativity. We gained insight into the misconceptions and low awareness levels about our work among our different constituent groups. From this, we developed more strategic ways to communicate about our model and approach at the community level.
This has involved creating visual representations of our program, simplifying and being more intentional about language we use, and capitalizing on more opportunities to explain our approach, whether it’s at parent-teacher meetings, school events, or through dissemination of our magazine.
Because Comprehensive Sexuality Education is loaded jargon in many settings, knowing how to effectively communicate its importance is key to building understanding and support. In many cases throughout the pilot, we were able to use constituents’ own words from magazine testimonials and gathered feedback to further develop our program description in accessible and culturally and locally-appropriate ways.
We also enhanced our adaptive capacity as an organization. We have become more cognizant of the different communication flows throughout our organization, adopting new strategies to improve internal feedback loops. This is allowing us to respond more quickly to challenges and opportunities in our work.
If our “bean voting” shows students didn’t understand a particular lesson, for example, our pedagogy staff can intervene quickly and directly to help our Educators improve. If we get several written requests for parent workshops at a particular school, we can shift our priorities, or at the very least, write back in our next magazine issue and explain why we are unable to fulfill those requests.
Not only are we being more responsive, we are also continually improving our performance founded on the priorities and needs of those we are meant to serve.
Finally, the wide range of high-quality feedback we are now collecting has boosted our situational awareness. We know how students, parents, and partner schools perceive us. We comprehend how they situate PJL in their lives and communities. We can make better decisions from this, and can better understand the dynamic and interrelated effect PJL is having.
This, in turn, has allowed us to better understand and position Projet Jeune Leader as part of the larger systems in which we operate – especially, the educational system in Madagascar - and drive both our sustainability and scale.
For the first time, we are systematically documenting local support for Projet Jeune Leader in students', parents', and school administrators’ own words. There can be no doubt that Projet Jeune Leader resonates with local communities. And these local voices are the ones explaining how and why.
More than a year after our first “accountability experiment”, we are still collecting slips of paper every week sent in by students, parents, and teachers.
As soon as they are in our hands we get to work to organize and consider all the suggestions for improvement. We smile to ourselves when reading the thank-you’s. And with hearts full, we sort through the stories of change, driven more than ever to work - together with our constituents - towards a better future for Madagascar’s youth.
Thanks to CIVICUS and AmplifyChange for supporting us in this accountability journey.