Learning-blind development (aid) and the missed opportunities for a real difference


Failure's freeway, the road followed by most development initiatives, occasionally dimmed by learning though (Credits: StormKatt / FlickR)

Failure’s freeway, the road followed by most development initiatives, occasionally dimmed by learning though (Credits: StormKatt / FlickR)

The global development sector is a learning universe, a space of experimentation and failures. One can read this positively – as in “a lot of learning is happening in it” – or negatively – as in “a lot has to be learned still and so much effort goes to waste”. Are we blind to learning in development (aid)?

Thing is: this situation is totally systemic. And since we only realise now how all aspects of development are connected (e.g. roads and other infrastructures allow better access to market; access to water allows improvement on agriculture and further down the line education etc.) there has been indeed a lot of wasted resource reinventing the wheel in development (aid) which could have been used differently.

At a moment when the public scrutiny towards spending on development aid is ever more alert and leads to budget cuts (which is a good thing since it forces everyone to cooperate for scarcer resources), the imperative for learning has never been more important than now – something which is fortunately happening, somehow, even between regions (as e.g. between Africa and the Pacific).

But a lot remains to be done still. It is not always obvious how learning can really improve development (aid), and the costs of learning (i.e. the investment in it – and I’ll come back to this in a later post) can seem much steeper than the benefits. But the cost of not learning is quite obvious.

So now, let’s look at a typically bad – and alas too frequent – development (research) project and its missed opportunities for learning; and let’s compare this with an ideal project which pays much attention to learning throughout:

What happens too often with typical / bad development projects

What ideal (learning-focused) development initiatives would look like

Preparation

It usually has overloaded ambitions in an unreasonably short project period (it’s not realistic and not designed in the light of previous experiences) Upfront, there have been extensive consultations with key parties – current and future partners – to determine the agenda and the ideal duration of the initiative. Literature research and scoping past experiences is also instrumental in building upon the legacy for this new initiative

Initial phases

The new project or program is meant to start delivering almost as it starts – no consideration has been paid for the time it takes to build meaning, trust and abilities The new initiative spends considerable time (a flexible inception period) collecting insights to refine and work further on ownership, capacities relationships and better plans
The project only addresses the ‘what has to be done’ and assumes that the people involved can just get on with it

Initial briefing is only about what the project aims to achieve, its organogram and reporting lines etc. all bureaucratic information

Much consideration goes into ‘Why are we doing this’ as well as ‘how are we going to handle it’ and ‘do we have the right capacities or should we invest in our capacities or in extra capacity?’

Initial briefing has therefore taken stock of the capacity gaps among staff and partners and addresses simple things like working with Word/Excel, social media etc. a s well as concepts that matter for the initiative – so the why and how

Who’s driving the project

External parties are driving the whole agenda and exploring new (thematic and geographic) areas Endogenous parties (and perspectives) are in the driving seat and have been selected for their mandate and capacity, network and other assets to sustain the initiative in the context(s) of the initiative- all of this is known because there has been proper reflection and consultation with them at the onset
A small team organises all activities for everybody. Occasionally some ad hoc team meetings are held which help the central team pass on information to everyone else A small team facilitates the implementation by other teams. It puts emphasis on holding regular team meetings where real two-way conversations are held, with proper documentation of key discussion points and jointly agreed decisions

Running activities and events

Activities are implemented by a small team working in isolation from other teams – they’re too busy ‘fire fighting’ to share anything with anyone else Every opportunity is seized to see if there is sense in following a social learning approach, putting the emphasis on ‘genuine’ participation. And the teams take time to find alternative solutions if they see that they end up ‘fire fighting’ all the time.
Activities are following the plans because the plans dictate what has to be done according to donors, when they granted the money. Activities are following the outcome logic and theory of change but they are regularly revised along the way, in line with changes – and that has been agreed with donors as the latter rather focus on a more effective yet deviated initiative than a useless original plan
Events organised during the project are scarce and when they happen they consist in death-by-Powerpoint executions, are ill-documented and quickly forgotten about – everyone sticks back to ‘business as usual’

There is particularly a ‘big bang’ kick-off event with lots of money and the presence of national media, followed sometimes only by a major closing event. Nothing much in between

The initiative is all about learning and engagement therefore it offers many opportunities and contextual events for the people involved to come together, reflect, ask questions, take decisions, follow up with actions, revise activities and plans

Engagement means that there is constant interaction with key influencers and movers, not just at the onset and sunset. All events that take place are properly facilitated to ensure learning is maximised – and well documented in accessible and compelling formats for future reference and action monitoring

Involvement and engagement

Working with partners at this stage means that partners do some activities either on their own but with very close ‘big brother-like’ supervision or totally separated from the rest of the project. The interaction relates to executing a plan and reporting about it – all that matters are the results. Partnership for the project staff means ‘more reports, more work, fewer results’ Working with partners builds upon the trust from the pre-project and early stages. Everyone shares insights, regularly engages in a joint analysis and it means a lot of opportunities to do things differently, to do different things, to learn differently (three learning loops) and to develop everyone’s capacity – a good set of assets for future initiatives too! Partnerships here means more ideas, more capacity, more energy, better quality learning, better results, better relationships: SYNERGY!
When conducting ‘field activities’, local community members are invited to respond to a (sometimes excruciatingly long) predefined questionnaire. They may never see the results of this. But it’s ok, since they’re project beneficiaries, they will benefit in a way or another, won’t they (it’s just not very clear how 😉 ) Field activities are guided by a certain ethics of engagement, are participatory in design and in practice, are developed jointly with the locals involved and results are therefore automatically shared, visions for the future elaborated collectively and plans adjusted together, starting from different world views
High level engagement consists in developing a few outputs at the end of the project and sending them to a mixed group of important decision-makers, hoping they will read and apply these High level engagement – which also contributes to leading to development outcomes – means that cherry-picked decision-makers have been involved in the process from the start, own the process and results (perhaps they have been involved in action-research themselves) and become the best advocates of the initiative’s work themselves
People involved in the project feel isolated and detached from the project and from each other. They don’t look critically at options to improve the situation for themselves and the whole group People in the project feel energised, involved, concerned, motivated. They all apply ‘personal knowledge management’ (PKM) to some extent so they personally improve and they connect their personal sphere and network with the initiative to question and improve it and to sharpen critical thinking. They are encouraged to reflect on their own as well as collectively

Capacity development

After the initial briefing, if there is any capacity development activity it is training, conducted by external trainers, to address general skills, not specific contextual issues that the project people are effectively facing. And that is, again, if there is anything planned to address capacity gaps. Everyone’s capacity is positively monitored (followed) and leads to several activities along the initiative, moving training from the theoretical terrain to the workplace experience and moving from just training to a whole set of capacity development activities (coaching, exchange visits, involving people in communities of practice etc.) focusing generally on improving the institutional capacity for change

Communication and outputs

The website and other communication channels are mostly unidirectional (‘here’s what we have to say to you’) and not well connectedStaff and partners deplore that so little communication is taking place – but they’re not doing much to change this The different communication channels are interrelated, engaging (they feature dialogues, consultations etc.) and although they look slightly messier perhaps, they are echoing and amplifying what the initiative is trying to accomplish, through multiple engagement routes

Everyone contributes to communication efforts

The outputs developed by the project are released at the end of the project and without much passion – more like ‘according to plan’ – and are not really informing other activities. Occasionally they are being promoted on e.g. the website, as standalone ‘results’ A variety of outputs are released throughout the project (away from dotty dotted communication), mirroring the different reflections, conversations and actions that have taken place by different people at different times and locations, about the thematic content focus of the initiative as well as about the process leading to its development. They are connected, refer to each other, and crucially are used (both content and output development process) for further engagement, reflection and action by the parties that are supposed to use them as opportunities and levers of change

Monitoring and evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation boils down to the bare minimum reporting. It is centralised but requires partners and outputs to provide a lot (random?) facts without background information as to why that matters. No one knows what happens to those M&E reports anyway. Probably they’re never read M&E organically addresses accountability, in an ongoing dialogue with the donor, but it also addresses learning needs to identify and address systemic gaps around the initiative’s objectives (and inform future initiatives). Everyone contributes to M&E although in practice M&E and project requirements are often the same because they have been integrated at the onset. Reports are just the (process) documentation of the conversations that happen in the initiative

What happens at the end of the project

The final project report is a sort of ‘annual report’ with some results but little passion and curiosity. It is only shared with the donor (Annual reports are an excellent measure of learning in organisations by the way)

Too bad, the website will never be updated – some people might think the project is still going on (luckily that horrible project is finally over though!)

The final project output is an interactive set of multimedia resources addressing different audiences, providing practical tools and guidance on approaches, in a variety of formats, distributed to all parties involved in the initiative, backed by an interactive event that looks forward and builds on previous conversations about this. All communication channels are also geared for that ‘post-initiative’ stage.
At the end of the project, it remains unclear what will happen with the people involved (staff, partners, beneficiaries), with the outputs (where will they be made accessible) and with the lessons that were gathered from the project – but at that stage, is there anything that should be saved from that horrible project, if not lessons about doing things differently next time? At the end of the initiative, a lot of options are on the table because there has been a thorough conversation throughout about sustainability, exit strategies etc. so everyone knows what they can do and have activated their networks to make it happen.

The initiative’s outputs are all openly accessible in a sustainable database and the many many lessons from this initiative have informed activities by many parties involved for future work – institutional memory across projects is taken care of.

Learning and sharing - the essence of smart development work

Learning and sharing – the essence of smart development work

It’s always dangerous to use such caricatures as it lends to think that it might refer to reality. It does not, of course, and a lot of development initiatives are somewhere on a continuum between situation A (the horrible project) and situation B (the ideal learning initiative), but clearly there are many opportunities for learning in development, so let’s focus on what’s being learned and use it to learn even more, rather than despair at all that is there to learn yet while ignoring the legacy from the past… 

Echoing, here, the man of the month (year, decade, century?):

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again (Nelson Mandela).

Does this assessment ring a bell? Does it resonate with your experience of what is happening with development aid or not? What other options do you see?

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