Sensemaking in a Nonsensical Development Context

March 3, 2020

In the State of Palestine, rarely do we experience stable ‘normal’ circumstances. As a matter of fact, we have been conditioned to embrace chaos and survive an unstable environment. Palestinians want decent lives but based on public perception through informal discussions with youth, they have become less concerned with long-term planning given the protracted crisis that rewires the brain to live in survival mode while subconsciously ignoring the big picture. This type of adaptive thinking has emerged as a resiliency mechanism to a highly unstable and complex political situation, and permeates all aspects of our lives, including work plans, daily activities, and strategic planning. While navigating this unstable environment, adapting and maintaining a fluid structure for development in general and for the work of UNDP/PAPP is essential.

Actors contributing to development work, especially related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), try to keep up with ‘global trends,’ whether through focusing on gender equality, innovation, enhancing start-up life, or promoting environmental sustainability; yet for Palestinians, these programmes tend to treat the symptoms rather than the root causes hindering socio-economic change. Sometimes what is needed is to reflect on the current situation in a structured way that lifts us from micro-managing our own work to feel ‘in control.’

Ahead of the Strategic Planning Workshop for UNDP/PAPP, at the Palestinian Accelerator Lab, we have engaged with the different portfolios at the office through running mini-sensemaking workshops. A simplified version of the Global UNDP protocol on Sensemaking and Acceleration was used as a basis for these mini-workshops. The aim was to initiate a discussion between the operational and programmatic staff to reflect on their work and feed into the future direction of the office beyond 2020. The discussions were inclusive of the portfolio managers and the project managers to reflect on the overall objective that links projects under one portfolio, what works, what does not, who are our partners, what gaps ought to be addressed, and the vision for moving forward.

How did we envision these mini-workshops to flow?

We thought we would hold a three-hour discussion with each portfolio, leave with a clear picture of the objectives that are beautifully linked with UNDP/PAPP’s strategy, the Palestinian National Policy Agenda, and the UN Development Assistance Framework. We would then identify niche areas that the Accelerator Lab could take on for testing and scale-up. What we realized is that staff referenced the sensemaking exercise as a first step into digging further to identify future programmes.

What have we learned?

The mini-workshops satiated a hunger by taking a step back from the overwhelming demands of delivery. It was an opportunity for portfolio managers and project managers to assess the relevance of existing programmes and the strategic vision for their continuation. The interaction between the programme teams and the operational team with all its intricacies was discussed.

What was most inspiring during these sessions was to recognize that UNDP/PAPP has solid programmes that respond to the dire needs of Palestinians.  Staff are driven by passion and commitment to expand programmes and operate in difficult geographical areas, most notably in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Area C of the West Bank. Programmes do not focus on one sector or one idea but engage with a wide array of actors to address challenges in a multi-disciplinary manner- an extremely complex task.

What was overwhelming was to sort through all the programmes, clearly identify synergies within an individual portfolio and between portfolios, and to craft out a common direction for all portfolios. It was also difficult to draw the lines of where UNDP/PAPP’s role in programmes starts and where it ends, as a result of limited coordination among development actors. UNDP/PAPP is well positioned to be a development agenda setter in the State of Palestine and could leverage this power going forward. There is a commitment to break silos and engage more strategically with partners and on common issues, but the challenge lies in translating this into day-to-day operations. Identifying niche areas for the office and consolidating programmes could go a long way in accelerating the impact of UNDP/PAPP’s work in the State of Palestine.

The Way Forward

So we have conducted eight mini-sensemaking workshops. What’s next?

The opportunity now is to continue the momentum and ensure that staff pursue reflecting on their programmes in planning beyond 2020. While delivery is essential for the survival of the office, striking a balance between delivering and effectuating change is a discussion that ought to continue.

At the office, it is critical not to fall back into our mechanical roles, and to continue to challenge each other to work more strategically to influence our partners. Enhancing communication among staff and ensuring a platform that allows for regular strategic discussions will promote the fluid adaptive structure we strive for, while also enhancing our confidence in adding value to improving the lives of Palestinians.

We would like to apply this experience to our key partner to contribute to the impact of realizing the SDGs. Within the next couple of months and beyond the office, UNDP/PAPP through the Accelerator Lab, will work closely with the twelve SDG working groups under the Prime Minister’s Office on prioritizing the acceleration process of the SDGs. UNDP’s sensemaking methodology will be adapted with the goal of identifying the most pressing challenges, along with the development of responsive acceleration towards addressing bottlenecks. We are excited to kick-start this process!