Barber Shop Tales of Impact

1 May 2018

Let me share with you a story that I stumbled upon whilst eating my lunch today. I can take no credit for this story – I found it on the internet. Nasir Sobhani gives haircuts to the homeless men and women he meets in Melbourne, Australia. Known as the Streets Barber, Nasir set up an initiative called Clean Cut, Clean Start following his battle with drug addiction. His belief is that homeless people deserve to be respected and given attention. Each week he gives haircuts and wet shaves to people who are living on the street. Whilst he cuts their hair he chats to them and then, with their permission, sometimes posts their pictures and stories on social media. There is beauty in the simplicity of this story and I urge you to take a few minutes to watch his film.

Photo taken from http://thestreetsbarber.com/ 

It’s a good story right? Clear, heart felt and well meaning. Well maybe it’s more than that. What strikes me when I watch this is how comfortable people feel to talk. In the intimate space where a person is feeling nurtured, they may relax and perhaps speak more freely, getting quickly to the heart of an issue. It’s good to see and although the stories the people tell may be as short and clipped as their hair, you do get a clear sense of their lives and perceptions of self.

International development and people centred approaches 

“People centred” approaches are not new. In International Development contexts, which often involve complex characters and situations, we recognise the importance of involving people in decisions that affect their lives. This value is often an important starting point for how at IDS we plan, implement and manage participatory engagement processes. Put simply, we know that programmes are more likely to succeed if the people they aim to reach are directly involved in them. 

But identifying need and locally relevant solutions isn’t always straightforward. The world can be messy. Despite best intentions, research can be further complicated by the relationships and uncertainty that it is built around. Add to that heady mix, some jargon and egos and those people at the centre can feel further isolated and irrelevant.

In the Knowledge, Impact and Policy team at IDS we base our work on the principle that decision-making and practice will ultimately be more effective where it demands, and is informed by, good quality, contextually relevant evidence. We work in partnership, to bring together a diversity of engaged stakeholders to co-create, share, mobilise and evaluate the impact of this evidence.

To achieve this, we apply a range of knowledge exchange approaches to the design and delivery of research programmes and share learning to strengthen the development research sector to do the same. Because of our reputation for high quality research and strong partnerships we are lucky to be able to convene discussions and bring a wide range of voices to the table. But even in our work we can fall foul of overcomplicating things.

 A fair bit of my time is spent writing impact pathways or coming up with outputs and activity formats that will help to communicate and share knowledge. I try hard to make these relevant and purposeful, but I recognise that in a quest to overcome the logframe beast and slay target dragons, it’s easy to arm yourself with big words and layers of complexity. This is dangerous. The trouble is that they may help you to win the battle but not the war.

Now, I recognise the need for tools and approaches that help us to capture intentions and be really clear about purpose. I would even go as far to say that frameworks and pathways are essential tools for good programme planning and delivery. However if we stuff them full of buzz words and meaningless phrases they become at best pointless and at worst dangerously misleading. 

We need to stay true and clear when we think about how and what impact our work will have. Not try to impress and over promise. 

So let’s go back to the Street Barber. When I watch films about direct action it helps me to reset and to think about the purpose.  It reminds me that there can be no place for buzzwords and convoluted tales. If had to write an impact statement for the Street Barber what would it say I wonder? I could say something clever sounding such as, “The desired impact of the intervention of hair reduction in street dwelling citizens will be that they will be less hirsute and their circumstances will be improved by regular interaction.” Hmm doesn’t sound as good or as compelling as the truth. So let’s just stick to honest impact and in the case of the Street Barber recognise that it’s good to talk and feel like you are being listened to.

Kelly Shephard secretly would like to be a barber, but is currently the Head of the Knowledge, Impact and Policy team at IDS.

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