Let’s not talk about the project

In November 2014, myself and OTW associate Jane Martin were commissioned by Theatre for a Change to carry out a needs assessment with sex workers and sexually exploited girls in Malawi.  Jane Martin is founder/director of Creative Social Change and has a background in evaluation, programming, participatory arts and theatre for development.  Theatre for a Change (TfaC) works with groups of women and girls in Malawi and Ghana who are at high risk of having poor sexual health and who have limited opportunities to assert their gender and sexual rights.

The needs assessment was a brief assignment and we worked with TfaC Malawi to review and revise the terms of reference.  We were not assessing targets or measuring outcomes; our task was not to evaluate TfaC’s activities or programming.  Our approach, methods and questions reflected our joint priorities of listening to representatives from their two target groups share their problems, concerns and priorities.

Resisting the urge to evaluate:  A very good evaluation had been carried out earlier by Sarah Middleton (see http://www.tfacafrica.com/how-we-do-it/monitoring-evaluation-and-learning/) and there was no need to repeat this exercise. In the beginning we had to keep reminding ourselves of this, as the temptation to assess and evaluate things is strong!  Understanding that this was NOT an evaluation helped us to refine and focus our question areas and to prioritise who to include in the research. This prioritising was critical given the limited number of days available and our choice of participatory methods.

Theatre for research: TfaC use forum, image and legislative theatres, developed by Augusto Boal as a central part of their methodology, hence the ‘Theatre’ in Theatre for a Change.  Jane is trained in these approaches so it made sense to use them in this needs assessment: participants were familiar with them, and we all believed in their ability to generate reflection and discussion.  Chikondi, from TfaC translated for Jane during most of the sessions. Jane and Chikondi enjoyed their shared vocabulary of methods and the research benefited from Chikondi being able to smoothly co-facilitate in Chichewa, the participants’ native tongue, rather than requiring everything to be interpreted during the workshops.


Workshops and interviews: We organised three workshops (4-6 hours in length) with female sex workers in Lilongwe and Salima and with sexually exploited girls in Lilongwe. We also carried out small group interviews with TfaC staff working directly with these groups, with Queen Mothers (women who support sex workers) and with a Community Child Protection Team.  Women, girls (and a few men) shared their time, knowledge, experience and ideas, and we used different techniques to generate and document these discussions. Most interviews and workshops were recorded, translated and transcribed, and the report which shares our learning, is made up of many first-hand accounts.

The obvious and the unspoken: We thought it important to focus not on what was known and already easily accessible in reports, and funding proposals etc, but also on the things that are under the surface and not necessarily announced to NGO staff in formal interviews and workshops. Image theatre, body sculpting and interpretation, role plays and the development of fictional characters, enabled participants to share what they needed and wanted from TfaC. Other techniques used included ranking exercises and a video booth for individual expression.

Reality check: Creating opportunities to listen to programme participants or potential programme participants, talk about the priorities and concerns in their lives, in addition to documenting their experiences in relation to a particular project is important.  An individual’s relationship with a project may only constitute a relatively small part of their lives and so enabling them to talk about their lives beyond the project can reveal new, and sometimes, urgent priorities for programme strategies and activities.  In short it can provide a vital reality check without seeing everything through the lens of “the project”.

Listening to staff too: Open discussions with staff are also valuable: asking staff what they would do if they were in charge and how they would change the way things are done, provided many practical suggestions for approach, activities, monitoring and financial issues. Staff on the ground, have lots of ideas for change and should have regular opportunities to share these formally with their senior managers.

“We enjoyed working with Oral Testimony Works on the needs assessment for our Community Programme. It is always valuable to have someone external coming in to do the listening and offer a fresh perspective. The methods used were particularly interesting and the findings were well presented in country for our members of staff. The report enabled us to learn new things about our participants’ interactions with the police and health care providers as well as reinforcing our existing knowledge on the subject.”

Patrick Young, Chief Executive, Theatre for a Change

Here’s our report: Listening to female sex workers and sexually exploited girls

For more information about Theatre for a Change please visit their website: http://www.tfacafrica.com/ You can also follow them on facebook and twitter:



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