A frame to work with learning alliances?


In the week of 20-24 April, IRC will be organising an internal workshop (including a few external participants) on the learning alliance approach. The aim of the workshop is to develop a framework to set up and facilitate a learning alliance process, looking at practical tools and taking into account all the lessons that IRC and partners have learnt in the various projects where we have been using a learning alliance approach.

This is the first significant step to document, across projects, our general understanding and experience with learning alliances. What are learning alliances? Check this presentation for some ideas:

…and feel free to ask for more on this blog.

Anyways, following the recent session on learning alliances which we organised for the fifth World Water Forum – for which I’m still synthesising the results and waiting for some fishbowl and marketplace results – this is indeed an ideal moment to try and synthesise how we approach learning alliances.

So far we have a mixture of ideas, key areas, steps and tools available:

  • Assessment of the situation;
  • Analysis of stakeholders, their needs, demands and expectations;
  • Visioning to rally stakeholders behind a common issue;
  • Communication activities to raise interest, inform and share with, influence;
  • Monitoring activities including a mix of qualitative/quantitative methods;
  • Process and event facilitation;
  • Process documentation;
  • (action) Research activities as the core focus;
  • Implementation of basic services;
  • Social inclusion to invite the marginalised voices around the table;
Fill that learning alliance framework please!

Fill that learning alliance framework please!

But this doesn’t make for a very useful framework to apply in a new setting/project, particularly if you haven’t been involved in a learning alliance process before.

So how could we conceive of it in a better way? The external people attending the workshop will be presenting their own ideas, but in the meantime let me share mine, based on the observation of the learning alliance (LA) process in the SWITCH, RiPPLE and WASHCost projects:

  1. Principles – the learning alliance starts with a few principles: demand-driven and locally owned research/implementation; social inclusion, better results (innovation, scaling up) through concerted action and reflection; action research as a way to instil reflective research; structured learning and two-way communication to ensure a dynamic flow of insights etc. This is the basis to create a fertile soil for a learning alliance process.
  2. Preparation towards a going-in issue: in spite of advocating for demand-driven research, learning alliances are still often initiated as part of a project and come up with a given agenda. To be fair, people starting LA approaches usually have been observing the situation beforehand and come up with an issue that has some degree of local relevance. This is where the situation analysis, stakeholder analysis and the likes comes in. A good trick is to have flexible enough a project design to be able to integrate demands as early on as possible in the process and to re-focus the going in position to where the demand is. And in a true sense, learning alliances should start from a locally owned situation analysis – perhaps facilitated.
  3. Participation: The next step is to bring stakeholders around the table. This means inviting influential stakeholders (the ones that can make or break your learning alliance if they’re in or out of it) but also guaranteeing that other relevant and usually marginalised groups take part to the discussions. This part requires intensive communication efforts to raise interest, inform stakeholders, invite them to join the dialogue and express themselves; further down the line, this is where advocacy (including policy engagement / support) comes in to influence certain stakeholders about the value of the work coming out of the process.
  4. Production: The core activities (research, implementation) that are supposed to address the issue at hand. And with an action-research approach, there is a guarantee that ideas are tested out, reflected upon and refined in the next round (see next point).
  5. Proving and improving: Where monitoring (and evaluation), process documentation and the reflective activities of action research lead to showing that the approach is delivering on intended outcomes, and to refine the approach for the next cycle.
  6. Pulling it all together: this is the management part of the project, everything that has to do with the internal project team (planning, implementing, monitoring etc.).
  7. People and capacities: Throughout the project, information and communication activities raise the awareness (knowledge if you prefer) of the parties involved. But their know-how, skills, capacities to play their role best is essential. Learning alliances are approaches geared towards social change; social change means behaviour change and behaviour change comes among others from capacity development activities, in the broader sense (from creating a learning space to training, to coaching, organising learning and sharing activities with peers or different parties).

This is only a half-baked model and perhaps more than anything else an input for the forthcoming discussion. Hopefully the rest will follow in the workshop… more very soon, and hopefully more documentation very soon too!

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