Sector learning – scouting in the dark


After several discussions internally at IRC, the decision was taken to set up a new discussion group to build upon the recently held ‘sector learning’ workshop (Delft, November 2008 ) where a lot of our partners came to present their resource centre initiative, national information systems or learning alliance approaches.

As usual with (nice) workshops, participants were quite happy to be there and to share. To share what? To share why? In a way this is one othe most interesting paradoxes of knowledge sharing: everyone is keen on doing it but not everyone is clear on what to share. In this case, it was all the less clear as the overarching topic of the workshop – sector learning – was also not very clear.

After two days, quite a few presentations, many discussions, a mini open space, still no consensus came up as to the term ‘sector learning’. An external editor is in charge of turning those discussions into a briefing note that sets the scene for ‘sector learning’. But this work will not see the light before April. And in the meantime, we would be well advised to take advantage of the momentum.

Scouting in the dark

Scouting in the dark

In the momentum meantime, indeed, a lot of the parties that took part to the sector learning workshop – spanning an interesting mix of Southern and international NGOs – confessed they would like to stick with this group and exchange more about their initiatives.

One of the direct outcomes is this decision to go ahead with a discussion group. Before we used that Google group for the resource centre development partners. Now this platform should replace the former and invite more organisations and individuals to share their practical experiences, issues, challenges and solutions around sector learning.

We are aware that there is no consensus on the ‘domain’ of sector learning. Not a very good start before launching what we would like to see evolve as a CoP, but our experience with partners and with the RCD discussion group is that a lot of active lurkers find something useful in such discussion platforms, to share information face-to-face with colleagues, if not on the virtual discussion group.

So we are there with this upcoming discussion group and the need to define what ‘sector learning’ is – or run the risk of seeing that momentum end in a momentomb.

My take on sector learning?

This will all be clarified by the briefing note mentioned above, and perhaps by initial discussions on this new discussion group, but rather than spelling out the components of ‘sector learning’, I would rather stress some factors that may have helped create that momentum:

  • Since the World Bank’s call to reorient itself towards a knowledge bank in 1996, many development organisations are understanding the value of knowledge and, though grappling with their learning initiatives (an upcoming paper from the IKM-Emergent programme will cover this), there is a lot of momentum for knowledge-intensive processes and for learning in general;
  • Governments, donors, NGOs are all realising that there is a huge overlap between their activities, and sometimes some dreadful gaps, simply because they are not cooperating more. Hence donor harmonisation, basket funding and sector-wide approaches;
  • This trend upwards – in the global arena – calls for visible and wide-ranging networks, constellations that can act as counterparts for donor agencies (having funding but no mandate) and for governmental agencies (having a mandate but usually well under-resourced);
  • All actors are realising that the WASH sector is very complex, because it involves many different kinds of stakeholders (central and local government with different functions – legislators, regulators, monitors etc. – civil society organisations of various kinds (NGOs, CBOs), large private companies and small private businesses and donor agencies). They are realising that a complex sector requires a complex approach, based on uniting forces and resources – hence the sector learning facilitators such as resource centre networks;
  • The project approach is increasingly acknowledged as a non sustainable solution, and therefore the idea of sector learning comes as a promising factor for sustainable learning;
  • Perhaps with a (primarily Northern) development discourse that has reoriented itself from setting up services, and  ‘transferring knowledge’ to enabling Southern organisations to realise themselves and decide how they would like to take their destiny in hands, a lot of international or Northern organisations are increasingly focusing on learning, advocacy, communication as their new niche. Sector learning is a next step on that road;
  • And last but not least, in spite of the obvious need to go beyond sectoral borders (after all, at the scale of a poor person in Africa, development is a mixed bag of education, health, water, energy and many other factors contributing to a sustainable livelihood), working on cross-organisational learning within more contained borders (the ‘sector’) is not as much of a daunting task;

The first few weeks of this new discussion group to be will tell whether this ‘sector learning’ buzzword can lead to actual improvements and whether it finds a niche attractive enough to make it grow.

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