Some good questions here, there is a need to break down the perceived purpose of such visits. I have only ever seen such ‘Jamborees’ when donors have asked for them (with increasing frequency, in my experience) rather than a standard practice of implementers’/aid agency work. So what exactly do they hope to get out of them?
I have heard many different reasons for such requests, including in terms of learning, accountability, checks & balances, induction to the context, getting out of the office and ‘feeling closer to the grassroots’ etc but to me it is clear that the type of visit you describe does little — and in an inefficient way — for some of these objectives. As you rightly point out it also places various burdens on communities. (Some communities thankfully will be very honest about this, which does give some scope for push-back).
So the specific need should be clear so that we can create processes or spaces that are fit for purpose. Or be brave enough to say, you know what, this doesn’t really meet those needs anyway so let’s do this another way which doesn’t take up time and resources within the project and the communities.
For example, I am not convinced that tagging along on monitoring, feedback and accountability processes by donors is a good idea. There are already complex power dynamics at play and such processes are designed to try and reduce/mitigate some of those effects. Usually done by local staff or local independent researchers, perhaps with peers from other agencies, with training and experience, as well as a set up that doesn’t leave FGDs with women being conducted by men, or that don’t mean that groups have to walk miles or sit for hours under a tree these days. Donor visits are not very conducive in tying in with this approach.
Anecdotally what I have found is that such visits to communities by donors and wider stakeholders are primarily good for one thing, which is increasing support for projects — for two reasons. Firstly, spending time in the field with hard working teams, communities, volunteers creates a bond. Donors or VIPs see the way in which stakeholders interact and understand better and buy in to the ‘ecosystem’ or ‘organisation’ of the project.
Secondly, after such visits and having seen something that is not a technical report donors and HQ staff feel more confident to talk about the project and therefore are likely to promote it in discussions. It’s like having a theory of change — whether or not people use it for improving evaluative practice the fact that you have a shared narrative set out that a team can use for describing what they are doing has a value in itself. We are human and need human ways of connecting and understanding, interpreting and communicating for ourselves.
But let’s not turn that into a tick box exercise which conflates different objectives. Your blog rightly suggests there should be other ways of doing this. One area perhaps to look at is places where physical access has been restricted — usually for security reasons — but teams need to find ways to meet both ‘connection’ and ‘accountability’ objectives without such Jamborees. Multi-media/videos, community newsletters and other tools have been used. When recently working in Gaza we (despite having several donor visit requests each month) also tried to use video-conferences to Jerusalem, HQs to help people feel closer to what was going on, without the need for communities on ‘stand-by’ for a full day in case VIPs got their security clearance, and were able to do a whizz-by at 3.05pm on the way back to the border.
Perhaps you should run a small ‘challenge’ for partners to come forward with alternatives for the next set of project visits in Kenya — donating the DFID costs from the field visit (cars, fuel, security, etc) so that they can invest in other ways to bring the project to life for you in other ways? I would be interested to hear what people came up with.