Since 2010, a core element of Sustineo’s work has been in the design and conduct of applied social research in Asia and the Pacific. Working and engaging effectively with local partners – whether individual or institutional – has been central to the success of this work.
In a previous Ideas in Brief from 2018 – The Importance of Local Partners – we reflected on the significance and value of local engagement. One year and a few projects later, we have had some cause for reflection on this subject. Fundamentally, the key message is the same. That is, engaging with local partners is critical to ensuring a project is designed, implemented and reported on in a way sensitive and relevant to local context and culture. Further, as part of our approach to building trusting relationships over time, working with local partners is fundamental engaging meaningfully and sensitively within overseas contexts.
This piece reflects on capacity building and how that has been provided to our local partners within – and between – projects, building from our recent experiences in Solomon Islands. It looks at some of the challenges of capacity and skill building of individual local staff on a project by project basis and advocates for organisations working in international development – such as Sustineo – to take a more purposeful approach to supporting these staff beyond the life of a single project.
Sustineo in Solomon Islands
Previously, we reflected on the mutual benefits of working with local partners. We placed an emphasis on building relationships over time; acknowledging the importance of “building relationships that extend beyond the scope of a project or a particular commercial opportunity”. As an organisation, this is something we do well. We maintain close communication with partner organisations in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, as well as the individual in-country research coordinators in Solomon Islands, regardless of whether we are on a project or not.
Since the start of 2019, we have had the opportunity to work across three different projects in Solomon Islands, building off another four that we have completed since 2015. A rewarding part of this experience – both for myself as an individual and for Sustineo – has been the opportunity to work with broadly the same group of local staff time and time again. This includes a wide range of individuals, from senior research staff and field team leaders through to the interviewers who form the research teams. This continuity has brought significant benefits to both Sustineo and our clients, as well as for development opportunities for staff.
Between projects, we have sought to help and facilitate staff development. We have purposefully given younger team members with high potential progressively increased responsibilities in the field. Within teams, we have sought to promote shared responsibilities across all members in the project teams, so while there is a supervision hierarchy, the maintenance of quality assurance protocols and keeping to team administration process are emphasised as shared team responsibilities.
While we seek to skill build as part of our approach to projects, there are limitations with what can be done on a project by project basis. Within a single project, it can be difficult to engage in ‘capacity building’ – budgets and resource limitations can restrict the training times and sessions we offer. While debriefs with the team are embedded as part of the quality assurance processes, the focus is on identifying issues with data or couching project understandings, rather than individual development.
Between projects we support our local staff by providing referee letters and ad hoc assistance on CVs and job applications, however the support provided to the Solomon Islands team has ultimately been part of a project by project approach to capacity building.
Taking a broader perspective
In the last few months, we had the opportunity to visit Solomon Islands to both finish work on a previous project and set up another one. In meeting with our senior research staff about team recruitment, what stood out to me was that almost every staff member from the previous project was ‘available for work’. On one level, this is good. While we will go through a broader interview process, it means we will likely build the team around a core of individuals who know our approach and have performed well for us in the past. On another level, it is not at all good. It means that nearly all of them have not found on-going work, despite efforts to find such work.
When taking a broader view, this is not surprising. The employment market is Solomon Islands can be described as bleak, particularly for people within rural areas and young people. As a case in point, last year former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark noted that youth unemployment was up to 82%. While there are clear limits to what an organisation like Sustineo can achieve – for example, other than on a project basis, we do not influence the ‘supply’ side of the jobs equation – there are steps that can be taken to provide broader support to the places we work.
Revising our approach
In a recently completed project we took a different approach to the way in which we recruited and worked with our local teams. Beyond the standard approach we take – as described above and including exposing staff to greater levels of responsibility and leadership positions as part of the team – we took two novel steps.
First, was to purposefully recruit recent university graduates without substantive prior work experience into our team. Facilitated with the support of the UNDP Solomon Islands and the Public Solicitor’s Office, we recruited 12 recent law graduates from University of the South Pacific. As part of our quality assurance process – and beyond training – we constructed the research teams to align the graduate staff with experienced research staff with the intent for informal ‘mentoring’ to occur.
Second, as part of the contracted time for our staff, we undertook a professional development workshop at the conclusion of the project. The agenda and focus of this were established in consultation with senior research staff and aimed to recognise the skills and capabilities the team members had demonstrated throughout the project’s implementation. The workshop focused on both CV preparation and job interviews.
While limited in scope, these activities were successful. For the first, the graduate group performed well as part of the team. For the second, the participating group were appreciative of the time and effort invested and noted that this type of support and guidance on how to present themselves professionally had not previously been forthcoming.
Future implications for our practice (and learnings for others)
For the projects we implement in Solomon Islands, most of our locally employed staff are employed as interviewers. While some are interested in research-based careers, many of them – particularly the younger staff – do not come from a research background nor do they aspire to work in research as a career path.
Given the recent success and positive feedback on our professional development workshop, we will be looking to institute this as part of our standard approach to doing projects in Solomon Islands. In taking a broader view of our responsibility to give back to the local staff who support us, we want to help them recognise and be able to confidently articulate their achievements. We want to ensure participation in projects is rewarding for their broader professional development.
Beyond this, we are also starting to look at other opportunities to provide support to local organisations. This includes preliminary discussions with Youth Co-Working Space (on a proposal pitching workshop) and other education institutions.
While such steps are limited, given the overall employment challenge in Solomon Islands, we believe Australian and other international organisations doing business in the country need to start taking a broader view of how they can support those they work with. This means providing support beyond the scope of an individual project. Ultimately, this can contribute to strengthening the research capability of every organisation working in Solomon Islands and ensures local voices and knowledge are both heard and acted upon.