5 reflections on operationalising CLARISSA to generate evidence

As we start a new year, and especially, as 2021 is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, understanding that the Worst Forms of Child Labour (WFCL) is complex is step one – there are no simple solutions. But we must go deeper than that, we must ensure that the programmes designed to intervene, and shape policy take on that complexity and precariousness. This is where the experience of the Child Labour: Action-Research-Innovation in South and South-Eastern Asia (CLARISSA) programme comes in. It is uniquely set up to generate evidence in innovative ways and to co-develop with our stakeholders’ solutions to the WFCL. This is ambitious, yes, but no one said it was going to be easy.

Throughout my career, I have taken on many coordination roles – these have undoubtedly prepared me well for managing the diverse yet proficient CLARISSA teams from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal. The past year with this fast-paced programme has been a painstaking as well as a rewarding experience. Here are five lessons on the reality of working in a project like this that follows adaptive management to generate insightful evidence.

1. Communication is and always will be the central aspect of such an innovative and exciting project. I am talking about communications in CLARISSA in terms of sharing the information and decisions made in the most participatory and clear manner. Not only there is a massive need of clear and transparent communication all the time, but also most of the time it is extremely challenging to follow it (properly) in different circumstances. It can sometimes be around the difficulty accessing information on MS Teams or Miro and other times missing out to take part in important discussions. At the end of the day, communication is not a rocket science – it evolves with time; CLARISSA has been through that journey all these months and years since its inception phase.

In a team of 50 people that I encounter regularly in CLARISSA, I am mindful of the need to be better at communicating – both internally and externally. The continual interactions of research and MEL teams in the various phases of life story collection process will most certainly help unearthing of feelings, problems and challenges encountered in the field. The team can practically do so without having to go through a ‘bureaucratic’ channel and be very direct and concrete which would not be possible in other programmes where the teams are merely told to follow instructions.

2. Participatory decision making is the trait I have admired personally so deeply in CLARISSA. One may not need to know everything or cannot know everything – but decisions made in CLARISSA for the most part are being done in a participatory manner. These days ‘participatory approaches’ have become more of a ‘cliché’ in the development sector and there are tons of resources on that but understandably it is extremely challenging to get full grasp of what the participatory decision-making process entails in a complex programme like this.

One thing is clear – ensuring meaningful participation does require time and energy but it is probably the most important thing to do. Only when our all teams, including community mobilisers, life story collectors, participatory researchers and and managers, are super clear on the precision of ‘why we do what we do’ and ‘how we are doing it’ then can we reach our goal.

3. Adaptive management is probably the single most essential part of CLARISSA, and yet it is realised that project teams including us managers and coordinators have often never been trained fully on it. In the past few months, this has been identified and discussions have started to happen on the systematic, evidence driven, and intentional adaptation processes as opposed to transient and contingent management. There is a further need to build the capacity of the team leaders and managers for effective implementation of adaptive techniques and ensuring proper reflection. Considering the COVID risk will likely stay for at least 2021, there is a very big need for us to be adaptive and intentional in several aspects of our operations.

4. Integration is another key feature of CLARISSA. When a programme of this scale is operational, a lot of effort is needed to build around the experiences and expertise of the teams and partners. I cannot emphasise enough on the significance of transparent communication to mitigate barriers. Especially those in the leadership roles – need to be clear, willing and active in identifying ways to troubleshoot any misunderstanding or tension that may arise. Countless other efforts may be required to help ensure successful integration, but proper understanding among the executive teams of each partner is supremely important to get things done in a timely manner with proper coordination and communication with their teams on the ground.

5. Connecting the dots. One should remember that these dots are often inconsequential and discrete but are a very significant part of the evidence generation process while talking to children who are engaged in the worst forms of child labour. It could pretty much cover several other aspects such as working with local bodies, dealing with the social norms and family issues, attending a child club function, or even taking part in dialogues and discussions around child labour issues in the country. The dexterity, critical thinking and mindfulness are expected from CLARISSA members to refer to anything and everything that is relevant. Above all, our knack to connect the most relevant findings at the time of need is the most profound contribution we can make.

To conclude, we have managed to pass 2020 with several learnings and pragmatic strategies (with all its struggles) – all this will be very important as we are embarking on another interesting year of CLARISSA’s implementation. I look forward to diving into all these amazing operational aspects. CLARISSA has taught me so many things within a short time and enhanced my ability to see how the little pieces evidence we collect in different slums of Dhaka or Hlaing Thar Yar contributes to the broader policymaking for the reduction of worst forms of child labour both nationally and globally. I would most certainly do everything in my capacity to keep the ball rolling and make 2021 a successful year for CLARISSA.

January 11, 2021
Sudarshan Neupane