Wanted: New (or Old) Ways to Share Information

    Information is a precious commodity here in Lundazi. An important initial task for any resource mobilizer or project manager is to find out where the particular mines of information are located and extract as much as possible.

    In previous jobs I have been overloaded with information in my first few days. Strategic plans, annual reports, specific induction days and possibly even an assigned "buddy" to show me the ropes - these have been some of the ways new employers have tried to ensure that I work at full speed before I even got my feet under the desk.

    Here it has been the opposite. Induction was made up of a brief chat with the council secretary and being shown where the toilets were. Placed in an office near the back of the council, my fellow VSO colleague and I have been left alone to climb the walls. The majority of visitors that come are lost.

    Sadly, little information about potential work is documented. Plans, budgets and strategies do exist, but are difficult to find. If you are lucky enough to come across one, it is probably very well written, with key targets, inputs and outputs all set and calculated. However, it is unlikely being followed as even senior management may be surprised by its existence.

    The best information comes through talking to people and getting involved in meetings. Yet even this is distributed in a haphazard manner.

    Two weeks ago, as I crossed the car park on my way to work, I bumped into a colleague who was rushing to a meeting.

    After the usual ping pong of greetings, which included us both checking and double-checking that wives, children and homes were fine, I asked who the meeting was with.

    "The Zambia Development Agency," he called over his shoulder as he hurried away, with too little time to talk. Presumably he considered it less important to tell me about a meeting with potential private investors than to ask how my carrots were coming along.

    Nevertheless, after two days of extensive digging, I was able to sit in on the follow-up meeting on a project sponsored by the Japanese government that could involve the investment of up to $30 million dollars.

    Last Tuesday, I was making a routine call on the district planning officer who told me he had an extremely busy day.

    "Anything interesting?" I asked innocently, before getting invited to a five-day workshop on the council's planning, budgeting and accounting procedures. As a member of the finance team, I should have automatically been invited, but these things seem to have a self-selecting aspect about them. If you don't know, you don't go.

    When meetings take place, particularly for important projects, it is usual protocol for the highest-level officers to attend, but they rarely cascade the information to more relevant workers or delegate the key tasks that have been identified.

    In order to find out what was discussed, one needs to be able to ask direct questions about specific topics. People will not automatically try to divulge the information that they think might be useful for you, but rather guard it until you strike gold.

    I am not sure whether information is subconsciously controlled by those in power, or whether there is simply a lack of understanding about the importance of information. What is certain is that information is not readily shared between departments or even individuals, and this means information rarely gets to the people who need it. Certainly, printing documents is expensive and electronic copies, like computers, are non-existant. A system for sharing information verbally may be the key to success.

    I have now taken to visiting certain key individuals every morning to find out what plans they have for the day, and as people get to know me, they are beginning to make detours to my office and even to invite me to meetings "in case I might find them interesting."

    My advice to anyone working in a similar organization is to forget whatever your original job description is and just try and get involved with everything and anything. VSO rightly encourages partner organizations take the lead in everything their volunteers do. But if partners are slow in coming forward, it is important to go to them.

    They are doing very nicely thank you.

    About the author

    • John Crockett

      John Crockett left the United Kingdom in October, 2008, with his partner Betty Alié to join a Voluntary Services Overseas program in Zambia. John will serve as fundraising and project management advisor to the Lundazi District Council for two years, while Betty will work as monitoring and evaluation officer with Thandizani, a local NGO focusing on HIV/ AIDS. John has worked in fundraising and communications for several U.K. nonprofits. Both hold master’s degrees in development economics from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where they met.