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Debating New Approaches to Learning for Development

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18 November 2015

Development institutions are learning new ways to share knowledge. The traditional hierarchical model of training, in which information is passed down from teacher to student, or donor to recipient, is not always the most effective. Instead, partnerships are emerging through which experiences can be shared.

Learn4dev is a network of international donor organisations, EU and non-EU countries, aiming to develop the skills of staff working in the field of development and to facilitate knowledge exchange both between donor organisations and with partner countries. At its 13th annual meeting, co-hosted by DEVCO and DFID at the East Kilbride headquarters of the UK development agency, 20 bilateral and multilateral organisations discussed the changing face of learning and particularly organisational learning.

“We have moved away from the idea of training,” said Andrew Nadeau, Senior Capacity Development Officer at FAO, the UN food and agriculture organisation. He identified a shift in FAO’s engagement with member countries. “We’re not just providing technical advice and guidance,” Nadeau said. “We are working with our member countries in looking at what needs they have, what the issues are, what solutions might be proposed, and how they might be advanced and accomplished.”

Countries are encouraged to lead and manage their own development, with support where needed. “We are very much looking at country ownership, at country leadership. […] They know the solutions best, they know the problems.”  

Working with the African Union, the FAO ran a learning programme for 17 countries from Eastern and Southern Africa, encouraging country representatives to reflect on food security issues and to map out action plans. “There was a lot of self-learning, peer-learning and facilitation,” said Nadeau. Collaboration and “cross-pollination” between country teams were an invaluable part of the process.



The value of these kinds of activities, or ‘social learning’, can be monitored in different ways, according to learning consultant Beverley Wenger-Trayner. “We engage in different kinds of activities together as learning partners – activities such as a debate, creating a document together, going on a field trip. There is an immediate value generated from engaging in the activity and value in the form of new ideas, inspiration, new connections, a new tool or document which could potentially be put to use. We then have to capture how people change their practice as a result of that potential value and measure the effect it has. It is crucial to be collecting this kind of data on an ongoing basis as a driver for how we organise our learning.”



It is also the most difficult part of the learning process to measure. The Lebanon Institute of Finance is retuning how it evaluates the impact of the training it provides to civil servants and clients in the Middle East and North Africa. Focussed on capacity development and governance, their courses begin with analysing clients’ needs, before a programme is designed, implemented, and finally evaluated. “We are investing more in impact assessment, trying to assess if any change was made following the training,” said Sabine Hatem, economist at the Institute. “This is more difficult, it necessitates a lot of resources, but it is the future.”



As well as changing the style in which development institutions facilitate learning for clients, members or partner countries, there can also be improvement to their internal knowledge sharing methods, and to cooperation between organisations.

“Many donors face the problem of limited access of staff in developing countries to training,” said Beata Kolecka, former chair of Learn4dev. With restricted resources, it can make both financial and educational sense for development organisations to join forces. “We are not working in a vacuum,” says Kolecka, warning against the danger of a ‘silo’ mentality. “We should be ready to work together.”



A key aim of many institutions present at the Learn4dev conference was to nurture a working environment in which the valuable knowledge locked inside staff can be shared and assimilated across organisations. “The institutions which are members of Learn4dev have many things in common and can learn from each other tremendously. We have a wealth of knowledge to share,” said Jana Repanšek, Deputy Director of Center of Excellence in Finance.

“There’s a shared interest in […] how we foster an enabling environment and culture of learning, innovation and smart risk-taking,” said Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President of Learning, Leadership and Innovation at the World Bank Group. “There was a lot of interest around shared platforms and partnerships for taking learning innovation to scale. We discussed platforms like an Open Learning Campus, and South-South learning.”

The exchange of resources and technology between developing countries was also highlighted by Clive Martlew, new Chair of the Learn4dev network, as ripe for emulation by development institutions. He outlined how the Learn4dev network could work more closely with emerging donors, “learn from them what they‘re doing, and to transfer some of our experience to their debate about how to share knowledge and experience.”



 “Big international aid organisations need to change,” said Duncan Green, Senior Strategic Advisor at Oxfam. “It means giving more recognition to people who understand the detail of local politics, societies and economies. Giving more power to local staff compared to expat staff.”

A new working strategy is needed, “different from the hierarchical way of working where you spend months devising the perfect project and then implement it for three years.” Green envisions a flexible, innovative style which can adjust to rapid changes on the ground, and in which local staff can quickly share knowledge with other branches of the organisation.

“We need to rethink how we’re structured, how we incentivise staff who work for us and how we think about the world. Apart from that, it’s really simple.”



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This piece was written by Daniele Di Pillo, with support from the Coordination Team.  

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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