By Alexander Dyzenhaus, Oxford Summer Field Researcher
The Most Significant Change (MSC) approach is a simple tool that can be used to evaluate any kind of project or programme that aims to create changes in people’s lives. It involves asking participants in particular programmes to tell a story illustrating what they consider to be the most significant change to have occurred in their lives.
Put simply, the MSC approach is a tool that allows participants, in a simple and accessible way, to reflect on what has happened in their communities over a specific period of time. The stories people share can demonstrate the tangible outcomes and impacts that may have resulted from local programmes.
As part of my research internship, organised through the University of Oxford in partnership with the Generations For Peace Institute (GFPI), I tested the MSC approach on Generations For Peace (GFP) programming in Macedonia. GFP has had full-scale programmes running since 2011 in Macedonia, aimed at addressing inter-ethnic tensions. From 25 July to 7 August 2015, I worked with GFP’s local volunteers to collect stories from children (the Target Group of the programmes) and their parents (the Beneficiary Community) in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods of Skopje and Tetovo through phone interviews. The stories anonymously collected from these individuals were then shared amongst the larger group of children and parents at group workshops. These workshops allowed both members of the Target Group and Beneficiary Community to discuss what they had shared in the interviews. Moreover, the participants of each workshop were asked to select which story they found to be the “most” significant.
For both Skopje and Tetovo, the children involved in the programmes, their parents, and the GFP volunteers appreciated the chance to tell their stories, engage with each other about the effects of the programmes, and learn from each others’ experiences during two workshops. Perhaps unsurprising for a volunteer-led organisation with local participation at the core of its programming, the MSC approach was well received by the Target Group and Beneficiary Community of GFP programming in Macedonia.
However, for all the benefits of the MSC approach (including its participatory nature and its focus on collective learning and reflection), one of the biggest lessons learnt during the weeks spent in the field is how much work is needed to put the method into practice. The preparation for each workshop was an enjoyable but chaotic rush of phone interviews, translation, transcription and, occasionally, arts and crafts. This served to emphasise one of the key foundations to the success of the MSC approach: local ‘champions’ who can implement the process on the ground.
The idea of local champions has been spelled out in some of the founding works about the MSC technique  – and I found that the knowledge and hard work of community-based volunteers was essential to my research. GFP volunteers – Delegates and Pioneers – were the local champions needed to make the method work. The GFP team in Macedonia, including the volunteers Sanja, Semra, Frose and Martin as well as our translator/transcriber comedic duo of Florian and Alen, were exceptionally hard workers. For each workshop, we collected, translated and transcribed over two dozen MSC stories over the phone. Then we conducted workshops with 20-30 participants each. Without the prior invitations issued by the local GFP team, I would not have been able to get any of the participants to the workshops. Without their translation assistance, I also would not have been able to ask questions or understand the responses during the interviews – as my Macedonian and Albanian language skills are still a work in progress, to say the least!
My reliance on the GFP volunteers went beyond the logistical side of story collection and workshops. The MSC process would not have produced such rich stories and productive discussions with the participants had the programmes themselves not been so thoughtfully designed, carefully implemented and enthusiastically received. Over the past few years, the GFP volunteers in Macedonia have carried out programmes in Skopje and Tetovo, where the participants and even the parents of participants have developed deep and substantial relationships with the GFP team as well as real appreciation of the importance of the programmes. Without the volunteers’ hard work over the last few years, the MSC process would not have been so rich and fulfilling. In order to get really interesting stories, something significant needs to have happened – and the programmes designed by Pioneers and Delegates in Macedonia provided that kind of significant change for those I spoke with.
What lessons can be taken from this? My time in the field has shown me the benefits of the volunteer-based approach used by GFP. Programmes across Asia, Africa and Europe have been running in varied contexts for years, and I have no doubt that GFP volunteers in different regions have brought about similar significant changes in the communities where they work. From my experience, the MSC approach seems to work best where programmes have been in place for a substantial period of time, and where Delegates and Pioneers have strong relationships with the local community. This demonstrates that while GFPI is meant to design new frameworks and test established approaches, this is not possible without the local champions: GFP’s Delegates and Pioneers. GFPI’s research relies on the investment, effort, know-how, commitment and kindness of its volunteers. From my experience in Macedonia, I am looking forward to seeing what GFPI – and GFP more broadly – can do with this tool in the future. All the hard work of the GFP team in Macedonia could contribute to an exciting new tool being added to GFP’s evaluation approach, not just in Macedonia but in GFP programmes around the world.
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