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GovExpert: Dick Wall, Former Peace Corps Country Director

GovExpert is a biweekly interview of high-level authorities on government and government practices. Dick Wall is a former Peace Corps Country Director for Chad, Zaire (Now the Republic of the Congo) and Mauritania (see full bio below).

Some Thoughts on Training

Below are some thoughts on what are common roadblocks to training in developing countries; what helps to make training effective; what contribution training makes to project management; and finally some words of encouragement for those of you who are trainers or are thinking about becoming trainers.

For this discussion training is the development of skills which enable adults to do something, or to perform a desire role. The assumption is that trainees do not yet have those skills, or don’t have them at the level of competence needed to do their work or are being asked to fill a role with which they have no or little previous experience.

Every country, community or group has a way to pass on the skills they think are important, and there are multiple ways of doing this. My approach has been to use an experiential methodology that takes advantage of the modern principles of adult learning. I’ve trained American and national trainees in African, Central European and Pacific countries. The language of training was either English or French, although on some occasions, it was done with the help of a translator.

So what did I find were some of the roadblocks to effective training?

The answer centers on time or the lack of it, and donor and sometimes country expectations.

Training fills a skill gap felt by the participants. It can sometimes fill a knowledge gap, but its purpose is to fill a skill gap.

Sometimes a donor will have done a situational analysis and suspect that the issues which emerged could be addressed by training. To test that idea, a trainer should be asked to do a training survey or needs assessment to discover what gap or gaps need to be addressed. Admittedly this takes time and costs money, but without such an assessment, the trainer is put in the position of having to second guess what the trainees need to learn.

The needs assessment is important for another reason. The trainer may discover there is no gap that needs to be filled. Instead they may discover that the issue is really an issue of bad supervision, a confused program strategy, inadequate budging etcetera: all issues needing attention, but not issues needing training. While the survey may have cost money, and additional time it will have helped management not to spend money on a pointless exercise.

On occasion the donor is under pressure from the government to produce a particular result, and the donor in a rush to respond asks the trainer to provide skills to participants who do not have the appropriate backgrounds or previous training.

The assessment may also point out that the trainee will learn skills they will have no way of using when they return to work because their home offices have not been prepared to use these new skills, or will not be prepared to do so for some time to come. It can be very frustrating to learn how to do something new and interesting, and then have no way to follow up or to practice it.

In all these situations it is important that the trainer learn to listen well and learn how to persuade a donor to consider other options.

What makes training effective?

First that the trainer, the trainee and the donor all agree that an important skill is missing and that training is not a substitute for dealing with a different sort of issue.

Second, that the trainer establishes clear objectives for the program allowing the trainee to see at a glance that their time is not being wasted.

Third that the trainer creates a climate of mutual respect, and to the degree it is possible, involve the participants in planning the agenda. This may not be possible in a lot of cases, but at a minimum the trainer can ask the trainees if the agenda will meet their needs.

Fourth, the trainer needs to acknowledge that adults have busy lives, and are hoping for real answers to real problems. As a corollary, the trainer needs to remember that adults have had many experiences and thus have multiple filters through to pass new information. A large measure of patience is helpful.

How is training an instrumental part of project management?

No one wants a project to fail. Everyone wants a project to succeed. Project management is a tough job requiring skill in strategic planning, budgeting, personnel management, diplomacy, and an understanding of how to do this in another culture and perhaps another language. It’s a hugh challenge. It starts with finding and hiring the right people to do the work now, but who also have the talent to carry on the work once the project has come to an end. Thus, one of the things training does is provide these new employees with an opportunity to new skills and try out different roles but in an environment where they can make mistakes, and make them in the company of people who might be able to show them how to do it better. It is so much better to make those mistakes in a practice session where the damage can be controlled, than later on the job.

In closing, I would say to new trainers that it is important to remember that you are only as good as you are no longer needed. That implies that whatever planning you do, whatever methodology you choose to use, what practical exercises you create, in the end, they have to allow the participant to stand on his or her own feet.

Training whether in your own or other cultures is an adventure. Learning, for all we know about it, still a mystery, and solving that mystery is part of the excitement of being a good trainer.

These are some first thoughts on these issues, and I look forward to hearing about your experience with these issues.

Dick Wall

Dick Wall is a consultant in training and international development with more than 30 years experience in training, conference design and facilitation, team building, and organizational assessment in US government and other-donor funded work in developing countries. He has worked extensively with ministry officials, technical, and professional staff in numerous countries throughout the world. Mr. Wall provides training and organizational development services to clients in several technical sectors including local government, education, environment, health, sanitation, and agriculture. He has worked with major international development organizations, including USAID, the MCC, USDA, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the African Development Bank, the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Peace Corps, and the World Bank. Before he became a consultant Mr. Wall He also directed the PC Training Center at Cuttington University in Liberia, and was an Associate Director for the Peace Corps in Chad and later was the Peace Corps Country Director in Chad, Mauritania and Zaire (now the Republic of the Congo) as well as the Peace Corps’s first HIV/AIDS Coordinator.

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Jeff Ribeira

Sounds very challenging yet rewarding at the same time. I’ve translated for individuals giving trainings overseas in the past, and it definitely does not seem to be an easy feat. Great interview, and a great example of service in the career of Mr. Wall. Thanks for sharing!

James A. Miller Jr.

I’ve always loved the original Peace Corps (Kennedy?) concept. But then the female abuse overseas, then back at U.S. headquarters, as reported in the media; made it seem Peace Corps glory was long-faded. I have a hunch that one aircraft carrier would pay for all past Peace Corps operations and personnel; plus a decade or two more, yet to come of it?