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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

To more complexity, more dagu!

Courtesy of nero vivo under CC at

Courtesy of nero vivo under CC at

This is the second post of a series focusing on how we can better incorporate the complexity paradigm as a key framework to tackle the challenges and questions shared by many of us interested in the interaction between research and policy.

As I had anticipated in this first post about welcoming complexity, I have am doing some reading about complexity and I am very eager to explore how to land very useful concepts and reflections to the current practices of P&I, including how we help others think about policy influence processes and the potential roles research and knowledge could play within them.

So to begin, I have chosen an excellent concept provided by Westley, Zimmerman and Patton in their excellent and rich book “Getting to maybe”, which is “dagu”. This concept comes from a tribe in Ethiopia, called the Afaris, who believe “it is a sacred responsibility to listen and share dagu-a word that means information, though it implies more than pure data.

The Afaris are nomadic cattle herders, and they have existed for thousand years in a harsh environment where most nomadic tribes have been wiped out. They claim that dagu is the secret to their longevity: ´Dagu is life´ is an Afari expression.

The authors explain how “being nomads, Afari families travel from place to place, seeking better conditions for their cattles and themselves. Every so often they will meet another Afari family, and no matter what they are doing and where they are heading, they sit down to talk and listen, usually for hours. The exchange of dagu trumps all other responsibilities. They share what they have seen and heard about the environment, about health issues (both cattle and human), about political tensions, about new relationships. As they talk, they provide the facts as they have seen them or heard them, but also their interpretation of what these facts mean. They collectively make sense of the patterns that are emerging. Children learn about dagu in their families and practice with their parents until they are deemed to be adept at deep listening, astute observation, and sense making or pattern recognition. Their lives depend on dagu. Dagu helps them decide when to leave an area and which are to head to next. It helps them stop the spread of disease in their cattle or families (…) The Afaris do not believe that they can control the patterns, but if they can understand them deeply, they can work with them and potentiality nudge them or influence them.”

I believe this is a very potent concept if we desire to better deal with complexity in capacity building. Are we really counting with others to detect the relevant patterns? Are we using the sensitivity of local sensors to bring on change? Are we working with a pace that allows us to observe, listen, connect and process as dagu implies?

One of the other points the book made was the importance of being close to where change may happen: generally those who are most adept at making change recognize the local rules of interaction and then leverage them to increase their potential. In this sense face to face interaction (and country visits like the one you mention that are not specifically related to a specific programme activity), can convey a rich array of information that helps people make sense of the patterns, learn quickly and adapt to changing contexts.

However, I can do some “dagu” through online capacity building as well. Of course I would be able to learn and understand participants much better if we were able to share a room for a week and get fully immersed in the topics of the workshop/course. However, this does not seem possible for most of us with tight agendas and lots of ongoing commitments and projects, besides the high cost of transporting everyone, affording lodging, etc. So what can Afaris teach us within this context?

We can really  center the attention on participants, what they ask, what they share, what they reveal about them and their organisations through practical exercises where they apply some concepts/methods to their own realities. For instance, in the course we facilitated very recently on M&E&L we could see some patterns emerging from practical organizational assessments performed by participants  (i.e. most organisations have already some unsystematic way of assessing their policy influence which can be very quickly used to build on and add another layer of complexity to the information they collect right now). Learning about what they do, asking them about their own questions, observing the type of participation they like (or do not like at all!) makes us closer to detect where the best potential is, and what we can together do better in the near future.

This is just one reflection among many inspiring thoughts that emerge while reading the book.  There are many other useful ideas in it. In fact, I am still wondering why it has not made it into many of the debates and exchanges I participate in since it offers extremely relevant concepts and experiences that can illuminate how we move forward. I plan to share a couple more through upcoming posts and definitely recommend the reading!

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