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Community Contribution

Saving CLA from CLA

Mar 12, 2024
Abhirup Bhunia

In the context of most international development programs, portfolios and strategies we are collaborating, learning and adapting more often than we think. It is just that we are not labelling it as CLA all the time. While this is an important point, if CLA is to indeed function as an intentional practice, I think it can benefit from better direction. I am hoping to begin with this blog a conversation - early on - to ensure we save CLA from CLA (i.e., Compartmentalisation, Lazy implementation, and Absent Adaptation (CLA). 

Of course the caveat always applies that there is no one right way to do CLA.  

Compartmentalisation: Limited integration between the two highly inter-related strands of work- MEL and CLA- is damaging to the core ideals of both practices. M&E and its outputs (concurrent monitoring data, evaluation findings, design-stage assessments, etc) are integral to the practice of CLA, and CLA processes cannot operate to its fullest potentials without ensuring that M&E is integrated where due. Tools may differ, but the underlying principles and intent overlap to a great extent. Both practices - broadly speaking - are in the business of learning; (different ways of) knowing; asking (often, difficult) questions; answering them (using different means); generating insights; and advancing the cause of inclusive, evidence-based practice. We must guard from a separation in thinking, ideating, practice, resourcing, and staffing/ hiring. CLA without grounding in MEL, and MEL without learning and adaptation orientation are both unhelpful to the bigger cause. We must keep at bay the risk of instituting two parallel practices - one obstinately focused on traditional measurement and assessment, and the other purely and sometimes superficially on facilitation and dialogue - whereas the most effective way to do both MEL and CLA right are to have these practices converge, not diverge. There needs to be constant interplay between explicit and tacit knowledge - all of which needs to be captured, and perhaps much more importantly, actually put to use. It is not very clear at a broad level yet whether uptake, utility and use of CLA is as uneven and patchy as for traditional M&E. 

Lazy implementation: Related to the above point, we must guard from a lazy interpretation of CLA that reduces the deep practice of CLA to episodic and event-based bouts of purported ‘learning’ which can sometimes overwhelmingly focus on event management. At its most abstract, CLA is a continuous cultural and organizational commitment, and this entails going much beyond ad-hoc assembling / gathering people hoping that it counts as ‘collaboration’. Unless learning and potential adaptation are intentional the aspiration of embedding CLA within programs and portfolios will remain just that - an aspiration. After all, workshops, panel discussions, roundtables, and conferences have existed forever. Simply by conducting them (and hiring a facilitator) at a time when CLA is a ‘stated approach’, does not make any of these events automatically count as CLA. Ultimately, if the underlying enabling conditions are not amenable - and not duly addressed through a vision and plan - CLA events and outputs do not count for much. Focusing persistently on those very enabling conditions (both enablers and barriers) is in fact a core essence of successful integration of CLA. For example, if a planned ‘pause and reflect’ is perpetually on the back-burner, and invariably postponed until the next ‘lean period’ of implementation, we must recognise that there is a problem of CLA uptake. Similarly, if teams within - or between - organizations are not able to find common ground and incentives for collaboration, there is a deeper CLA intentionality /maturity problem, and a CLA event cannot fix it. Just like most other cross-cutting practices (e.g., Gender and Social Inclusion/GESI or MEL), CLA cannot function as a checklist, perfunctory exercise.  

Absent adaptation: In all of this, we often ignore the ‘A’ in CLA. To gain visibility into the process of adaptation, all stakeholders should continually iterate and agree learning questions and adaptation needs. The process of CLA implementation should deliberately include logs on ideas for adaptation emanating from the processes, a narrative on what ideas were agreeable and implementable, and notes on what adaptations were actually made. These adaptation logs lead to a trail of evidence on what was achieved by way of CLA, and closes the C-L-A loop. This is segue into returning to my first point: without integration of MEL and CLA, there is in fact very little possibility of achieving evidence-based adaptation. In other words, MEL and CLA are as interconnected as vehicle and fuel, where one in isolation is not enough to drive evidence-based practice in international development.  

About the authors
Bio image-Abhirup Bhunia
Abhirup Bhunia

Abhirup Bhunia is an international development Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) Expert, who has more than a decade of experience in MEL and Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA; adaptive management) across sectors with multiple bilateral/ multilateral institutions including USAID, FCDO, DFAT, BMZ/DEval, OECD, several UN agencies including UNDP, ILO and UNCDF, and civil society organizations such as Oxfam Novib and Chatham House.