Teachers or Facilitators?: How T4D Facilitators Shape Our Intervention

T4DThis blog post is the fourth in the Transparency for Development series “T4D: Views from the Field,” written to highlight what members of the T4D team have observed in launching a co-designed intervention in Tanzania and Indonesia that seeks to empower citizens to improve maternal and newborn health in their communities.

This post is written by ethnographer Megan Cogburn with support from fellow ethnographer Mohamed Yunus Rafiq, focusing on one of the factors that she observed during her time living in and researching villages in which the intervention took place in Tanzania. 

It is an example of the insights that can emerge from the ethnographic approach that is a core component of our research—insights that can reveal potentially key factors that neither the practitioners nor the researchers on the team would have thought in advance to explore.  These kinds of insights will be incorporated into our later research, forming the basis for hypotheses that we can explore more widely and systematically to understand why the intervention played out differently across communities.

Read other posts from the T4D project here


By Megan Cogburn

In early June 2016, Yunus and I met at a hotel in Dar es Salaam to share our experiences conducting ethnographic research for the Transparency for Development (T4D) Project in two rural districts in central and eastern Tanzania. With the calming turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean as a backdrop, Yunus and I discussed our halfway-point observations on the ways in which the T4D intervention was playing out and beginning to take shape in our villages.

As trained anthropologists, Yunus and I were not surprised when listening to each others stories ultimately revealed the many different and complex ways the same intervention was playing out in our communities. Our communities varied in a wide range of influencing contextual factors—from language to religion to politics to historical processes of development. And while we could discuss the importance of these factors as they related to the ways the intervention entered into and took on life in our villages, a different factor began to emerge from our conversations as potentially being critical to how—and perhaps even why—we were seeing so much variation between our communities: the role of the facilitator.


Facilitation vs. teaching

The role of the T4D facilitators (selected and trained by implementing partner CHAI) stands out as an important factor when trying to understand why the intervention played out in different ways among our ethnographer villages. While T4D tries to standardize many elements of the intervention—structure of meetings, meeting content, timeline, methodology—the facilitators introduce variability that is unavoidable when working with humans with different backgrounds such as age, gender, ethnicity.

The facilitator’s unique experiences affect the ways in which he or she carries out the facilitator role in the T4D intervention. From their first discussions with village leaders to the ways in which they run the Community Scorecard Meetings to their informal conversations with community representatives, the facilitators have a huge role in the intervention. How they embody this role, therefore, may have consequences and effects on how the intervention plays out in a community.


Photo Credit: Megan Cogburn


Comparing our observations and experiences, Yunus and I saw two different ways a facilitator can carry out his or her role: either as a facilitator or a teacher. The facilitator role is designed to promote discussion, the creative flow of ideas, and community empowerment. This is done, in part, by the facilitator taking a more hands-off role—interjecting when necessary to steer the community in the right direction, but not lecturing from a position of authority. In Tanzania, there is a very important differentiation between the roles, symbols, and positionings of a teacher and that of a facilitator.

There is a great amount of social and cultural prestige, respect, and authority given to one who is perceived to be a teacher. The first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, was first and foremost a teacher. His respect and social prestige transferred to the teaching profession as a whole across the country. Today President Nyerere is remembered and referred to by the title Mwalimu, which means teacher in Swahili. I call one of my closest older informants and friends Mwalimu (she is a retired teacher), as the cultural and social implications of that title highlight my respect and signals my deference to her authority.

Yunus and I identified ways in which there has been a transformation of the T4D facilitator from a true facilitator role to a teacher role in in some villages. We saw this most evidently in my villages where the T4D facilitators often embodied this role of teacher in the intervention meetings. For example, one of my facilitators, who had previously worked as a teacher, ran the intervention meetings with a rolled up piece of paper constantly in her hands. This sort of rolled up piece of paper is commonly used by teachers in Tanzania as a stick or pointer in the classroom, and it is a symbol of authority and power—similar to the way a chief in a village can always be seen with his stick in hand.

There were also times when the facilitators would use applause to award a “right” answer from a community representative, much as a teacher praises an astute student in the classroom. There were even times when late arriving participants were reprimanded by the facilitators, reinforcing again a more teacher-like response to a tardy student. Even Yunus recalls some of this teacher-like behavior and mannerisms during the T4D Tanzania pilot, suggesting that this transformation from facilitator to teacher is more of a structural issue related to the dominance of this teacher-like role and less of my villages being an outlying case.

On the other hand, Yunus described how some of his facilitators worked to distance themselves from the teacher-role by strategically lowering their prestige in a number of ways. During breaks, for example, his facilitators would help pass out the tea and snacks to the participants—serving them first instead of waiting to be served by one of them (which commonly occurred in my meetings).

His facilitators would also wash the hands of the community representatives and clean up after them, actions allowing space for a less hierarchical facilitator role to take shape. Finally, Yunus’ facilitators were rarely seen holding the intervention facilitator manual in their hands (another common action of my facilitators) during the meetings, and tried to be as un-scripted as possible in an attempt to make meetings more conversational and less like a lecture.


Photo credit: Megan Cogburn


What this might mean for the intervention

So why does this conversation about the differences between the teacher and the facilitator matter for how the intervention played out in our villages? Well, Yunus and I think that the more the community representatives see the facilitators as teachers, the more the project becomes seen as a of top-down intervention. It becomes less citizen-owned and citizen-led and more like a project or assignment that is imposed from the outside.

Discussing how the intervention has played out in both of my villages, Yunus referred to them as “extreme cases.” Looking back at how the T4D facilitators in my villages ran the intervention meetings as teachers rather than facilitators, it make sense that community representatives in one of my villages ultimately carried out so little of “their” social actions. Perhaps they saw the action plans more as assignments from outsider teachers than actions that were theirs and could really bring positive change to their community.

Moreover, I began to wonder if this “teacher-like” approach has a limiting effect on the community representatives’ creativity. Do participants feel the need to find the “correct” answer to their maternal and neonatal health barriers instead of creative, appropriate, and sustainable solutions for their own communities? Yunus and I hypothesized that participants in his villages felt more empowered to take risks in their responses and to create social actions that reflected how they wanted to lead the intervention within their communities because the facilitators were just that—facilitators.



cogburnMegan Cogburn is an ethnographic researcher for the T4D project, where she spent seven months conducting intensive field research in two Tanzanian treatment villages. Megan is a PhD student in medical anthropology at the University of Florida (UF), specializing in the areas of maternal health governance, gender, and development in East Africa.

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