Navigating from Uncertainty to Certainty
Chiseche: We often treat identities as if they are hard wired and immutable. My passport describes me as a Lawyer. And when I describe myself as a Lawyer, it always improves my standing, e.g. moves me from Economy to Business class. For twenty years I saw myself as an Academic. This identity led to invitations for critical thinking, educating, creating knowledge, pontificating. And in the past year, my response to the question, what do you do? Why are you here? I respond, I work in the development sector. My identity is still changing, I am still finding the right word to describe my identity, and still crafting my narrative about who I am, and what superpowers, and competencies come with this new identity and networks. This evolving story about my own identities, mediates the way I heard MECP-K’s story. Their story is another story inspired by a global pandemic, a story of pivots and adaptations. But it is also a story about pausing when the impulse is to leap into action, in order to look in a mirror critically, to see one’s identity and ask ‘who are we?’ What will our response say about us?
Chiseche: Everlyn, in the earliest days of the outbreak, I imagine there was confusion, maybe even panic. I am wondering what questions did the pandemic raise about MECP-K’s identity? What insecurities arose about who you were?
Everlyn: What the pandemic brought about was that all our earlier plans were about to be shattered. We had to act fast, to ensure that we remain focused on our social mission and remain financially stable in the new region. We had to close our regional offices in Kisumu and Kisii. We feared that the repercussions of this would bring about a loss of identity because we were relatively new in the region. By breaking our quest of establishing a strong foothold and becoming the ECD partner of choice, would we be considered as a “briefcase organization” whose work is temporary, only to touch a community and then vanish?
Chiseche: What exactly do you want to share with the gathering of development practitioners today? What’s the purpose of your story?
Hezron: The purpose of our story today is to share our experiences on how we navigated through this unprecedented and uncertain period of programme implementation. Our story is about how we emerged with a stronger resolve to strategically move forward and learn to navigate the experience of a project pause. We learned that we need to prepare ourselves for a future that includes unforeseeable risks and uncertainties. The pause in
project implementation has given us the opportunity to calmly take stock.
Chiseche: First let’s put your work into context, who is MECP-K, where did you come from, and pre-pandemic, what were your strategic targets?
Amina: Madrasa Early Childhood Programme – Kenya (MECP-K) is an early year’s organization with three and half decades of experience in the ECD space. In partnerships with communities, civil society, government and development partners, we implement programmes targeting children aged 0-8 years through the delivery of high quality, contextually relevant and sustainable ECD services. Three years ago, MECP-K embarked on its journey in scaling up its programmes into new geographies. The scale up was strategic for a number of reasons: First, we wanted to test and proof the MECP-K model beyond coast region having operated there for nearly three and half decades. Secondly, we aspired to achieve greater impact by reaching to more beneficiaries. Thirdly, the scale up was intended to generate further evidence in order to influence policy dialogue and practice and lastly, we wanted to test the new co-financing model with the county governments that will help us to expand our revenue streams.
Hezron: In 2018, after consultations, we signed Private Public Partnerships (PPPs) Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) with county governments of Kisii and Kisumu. The MoU aimed to deliver professional development course for 600 teachers from 200 pre-primary schools. We were able to set up offices in both counties and recruited nine staff who would undertake programme delivery. In September 2019, we started delivery of teacher training for the first cohort of 334 teachers in the two counties. This was progressing very well until March 2020 when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Kenya. The government of Kenya immediately put in place measures to curb the spread. These included closure of schools, ban on social gatherings and meetings and restriction of movements across counties.
Chiseche: You were clearly at a stage of your story where the sky was the limit. It sounds as if you had arrived. And then after this grand expansion of networks and capacity, COVID-19 brought you down and burst the bubble. What impact did this have on you? Can you describe what happened next?
Everlyne: Yes its true, the sky was the limit for us. On the day the directives were made on measures to combat COVID-19, we were actually in the middle of second phase of training for the first group of 116 out of 334 pre-primary teachers. There was a lot excitement and the teachers were in high spirits as the Minister of Education at County level was expected to arrive at anytime to grace the material display session at the end of the training. This new development meant that we not only suspend the remaining teacher training sessions but also close our offices and send staff on leave while others work from home. While we thought that these measures were going to be short term, the number
of infections in the country continued to rise.
Everlyne: Yes its true, the sky was the limit for us. On the day the directives were made on measures to combat COVID-19, we were actually in the middle of second phase of training for the first group of 116 out of 334 pre-primary teachers. There was a lot excitement and the teachers were in high spirits as the Minister of Education at County level was expected to arrive at anytime to grace the material display session at the end of the training. This new development meant that we not only suspend the remaining teacher training sessions but also close our offices and send staff on leave while others work from home. While we thought that these measures were going to be short term, the number of infections in the country continued to rise.
Amina: With the situation unrelenting, the government through MoE issued a communiqué on July postponing school reopening to January 2021. With the changes in the school calendar, possible government de-prioritization of teacher training over curriculum implementation, and decreased demand for teacher training services will require MECP-K to make continuous adaptation in implementation. With extended school closure, we were technically grounded for the next 6 months. But, how could we realize our impact in Nyanza region with only 6 months of donor funding left? How could we justify staff compensation without continuity of project implementation?
Chiseche: There are a lot of negatives in your statements: decreased demand; rising infections, discontinuation; de-prioritization of teacher training; suspended training; uncertainty; grounded. It seems like you had perfectly good excuse to quit. But we are here today, listening to your story, because you kept going. How did you keep going, what did you prioritize, and what did these choices reveal about your identity?
Everlyne: We did not want to stop, because we had established relationships with the county governments and the school communities. Just letting everything go would add to the uncertainties. Our first challenge was to find a response to the emerging stakeholder needs that the prevailing COVID-19 situation brought about. We came up with short term COVID-19 response plan where we developed and shared key messages on COVID-19 awareness to stakeholders and offered support to families to undertake children’s home learning.
Hezron: Beyond the COVID-19 short term plan, the situation called for critical reflection and consultation on how we wanted to move forward bearing in mind the emerging needs for schools, teachers and children including possible shifts in government priorities. In addition to this, the activities developed to respond community needs generated by COVID-19 and lockdown was depleting our budget. We needed to think of a more feasible plan.
Chiseche: You were planning through uncertainty with multiple stakeholders, including the funder. How did you navigate different and maybe even conflicting priorities as you all realized you could not deliver on anticipated results? How did you communicate tough decisions to stakeholders?
Hezron: With the government’s position that schools are likely to re-open in January 2021, we communicated this development to our partners and proposed to suspend all implementation until January 2021. We also negotiated No Cost Extension, but this was not an easy or straight forward journey.
Amina: We conducted Internal and external consultations within MECP-K, AKF and other donors to forge a way forward. Internally, we conducted scenario planning to assess the pros and cons of each scenario before moving to the next stage of consultation. This process was aided by regular and consistent communication and consultation with donor units to update, soundboard, review and to approve our decisions. We had to make tough but strategic decisions to remain focused and achieve our vision. We had to put the project on pause as a measure for saving on operational & HR costs during extended school closure period and request for a no cost extension. This decision was drastic, bold and harsh but seemed the best way to enable us rethink and repurpose. We believe part of our success in navigating this situation depended on having a flexible donor that was willing to adjust timelines and targets to be responsive to the situation we were in.
Chiseche: How did you deal with the stress? Particularly the stress that the global pandemic put on relationships.
Everlyne: It was an emotionally charged period; trying to balance HR and financial obligations, cope with sudden staff termination as positions were declared redundant and provide psychological support for staff with whom we had built very good and stable relationships.
Hezron: We had to revise our project milestones which included limiting our training to the first cohort of teachers. In our initial plans we had targeted to reach out to 600 teachers but now we had to focus on the first 334 teachers. This would ensure we deliver quality training and maximize on available grant funding since it was uncertain whether the county governments would now be able to meet its co-financing commitments.
Chiseche: The staffing terminations must have been very painful. I’m sorry to hear about that. What does the situation look like today? And what staffing, development and institutional strengthening opportunities do you foresee?
Amina: We intentionally retained two key programme staff in the region to ensure partnership management and continued engagement during project pause period In addition, we are in the process of recruiting a business development specialist who will be strategic in supporting exploration of other revenue streams for our organization. The business specialist position is key in providing the skills in the organization that will not only be helpful in mapping out the next few years of MECP-K’s business strategy but may also help to prepare the organization for similar pandemics or crises in the future, should they emerge.
Everlyne: We plan to rehire some of terminated programme staff should they be available and even engage experienced short term staff to balance technical HR needs when we reinitiate the project in January 2021
In addition, we are embracing new approaches to resource mobilization such as tapping into local philanthropy in order to diversify our funding streams.
Hezron: Following successful application for No-cost extension, we plan to review our work plan for 2021 along with the budget to ensure it caters for the extended period of project implementation. In addition, we will review the end of project evaluation design in consultation with our learning partner to ensure we make continuous improvement in programming and obtain credible evidence for policy engagement and influence.
Chiseche: Some closing thoughts are about lessons learned as an organization. What is your strategy for facing uncertainty going forward? What is your relationship to uncertainty – do you believe that it can always be prepared for? Have you had to change or alter your identity in any way?
Amina: We used to think that the signing of private public partnership with the county governments would enable us access funding to co-finance the project interventions, and now we know we need to strategically prepare ourselves for uncertainty in the future especially on funding because uncertainties happen, Governments can change priorities from time to time and budgets diverted to emerging needs.
Everlyne: We used to think having a stoic project implementation plan will allow us to implement with minimal interruptions but now we know that flexibility is key when budgeting and implementing project plans anything can happen at any time.
Hezron: We thought that all project risks could be mitigated with proper planning but now we have learnt that there are other risks that are completely unforeseeable and may shake an organization. Therefore organizations are required to be resilient and strategic enough to ensure manage such risks.
Amina: On a flipside, we used to believe that pandemics bring nothing good but tragedy however we have realized that there are good things that came out of it. The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the government to re-think and make changes on matters Early learning. These include; regulations of class size and teacher child ratio, coordinated planning across sectors, parental engagement at school level and building systems around technology to support learning.
Our identity as an organization has not changed. This is because of the consistent communication with our partners the ability to make bold and firm decisions to secure our vision as an organization, the relationship with our partners and the social mission in Nyanza to deliver impactful programmes has made us more respected and trusted.
‘We believe the success of any organization will be determined by the bold steps they take today