Are workshops worth the effort?

Jane Carter, 02 March 2015
Are workshops worth the effort?

Readers of this blog will know that the last two postings drew from a regional workshop in Laos on gender and development in contexts of ethnic diversity. In describing this workshop to a friend, she asked me if I really thought that the outcome was worth all the cost and effort involved. This is a difficult one, as whilst the costs are relatively easy to measure, the benefits are not. Or rather, it’s not easy to give a monetary value to shared knowledge and ideas, and a motivation boost. Yet I’m pretty certain that such face to face events are one of the best ways we have of generating momentum and shared understanding about gender and social equity (or indeed any other topic) within our organisation, and of stimulating new initiatives. The following are a few of the “ingredients” typifying a good workshop in this respect.

Diverse participants

Although it can be easier to facilitate a workshop whose participants share a similar awareness of a topic, its often more interesting to have a range of experiences. A number of “knowledge holders” or even formal resource persons (as was the case in our Laos workshop) are invaluable in contributing long-standing experience. Nevertheless, individuals who are fresh to the subject, or to the organisation, are sometimes those who provoke most thought, through asking “naïve” questions and bringing a different perspective. For gender discussions, the sharing of men and women’s perspectives (at least when discussed constructively) is really important; in this we did not do well. Despite men participants having been explicitly encouraged, 16 out of the 19 participants were women. Whilst this is sadly typical of “gender events”, it was the greatest weakness of the Laos workshop.

Diverse experiences

There’s a fine balance between being stimulated by different examples and being overwhelmed with information. In a two page summary prepared in advance, participants provided the minimum contextual details needed to understand the setting, and focused on practice – the how, why, and what happened. Thus we learned, for example, about gender relations in ethnically diverse community forest management groups in Bhutan; government moves to promote gender equality in Laos; activities supporting new livelihoods for adolescent girls in ethnic communities in Myanmar; the way riverbed farming in Nepal has fostered improved gender relations in Tharu communities in Nepal; and women’s economic empowerment through traditional handicraft promotion amongst H’mong communities in Vietnam. It also became rapidly apparent to everyone that within our organisation, we already use a huge diversity of tools or methods in support of gender-responsive, socially inclusive project implementation. These include participatory gender analysis; well-being ranking; community resource mapping; problem tree analysis; partner assessment guides; checklists; workforce diversity monitoring; affirmative action…. The list goes on. We concluded that there is less a need for new tools, than for putting existing ones to new or better use.

Diverse means of learning

Although some participants clearly felt PowerPoint to be an essential feature of a presentation, others were willing to try different methods; role plays, in particular, created many memorable and sometimes hilarious moments. In addition, we used fishbowl discussions, World Cafés, and took a break from the workshop venue mid-week for a field visit. Then as any regular workshop goer knows, the informal interactions are sometimes amongst the most valuable; I learned a lot over relaxed evening discussions.

What came out?

The answer will only really be apparent in six months’ time or a year, at earliest – the time needed for participants to put some of what they discussed into practice. Like most workshops, a number of concrete recommendations were produced. Of these, two were particular “take home” ones for me. One is the commitment that this year, each country programme will take up one particular “tool” that they don’t currently use to promote gender-responsiveness and social inclusion in their work. The other is that within our organisation, we will seek to initiate women’s leadership in a more proactive manner; this is already “work in progress”, to which the workshop gave further impetus.

Incidentally, the workshop report is an internal document and is thus not shared on our public website – but anyone wishing to read it is welcome to request a copy!

Jane Carter
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Jane Carter

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