Creating an Organizational Culture of Learning in Development
Eva Matsiko is the Chief of Party of the USAID Uganda Governance, Accountability, Participation and Performance Program, which is implemented by RTI International.
My colleagues and I at RTI International are constantly asking ourselves the same question that development practitioners across the sector are asking: how can we create a culture of learning in order to better share knowledge between programs and, ultimately, get better results? Throughout the past year, RTI has hosted three “Learning Summits” bringing together staff from different projects and other leaders in the development sector to discuss approaches to monitoring, evaluation, research, learning and adapting (MERLA). Previous summits were held in Washington DC and the Philippines.
Recently, our East Africa Learning Summit in Kampala, Uganda brought together representatives from projects in Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda, as well as representatives from other implementing organizations, donors and partners. What did I learn from the experiences of six different projects and our keynote speaker?
Several lessons stand out:
- Embrace failure and harness it for success. If we don’t acknowledge when we fall short and understand why it is difficult to learn. Embrace lessons and the opportunity to improve.
The USAID ENVISION project was facing difficulties achieving necessary treatment coverage levels during a mass drug administration (MDA) targeting a nomadic population in Tanzania. Program leaders conducted a qualitative assessment to understand why they weren’t reaching enough people. The team discovered that the best time to reach their target group was during the rainy season because the group travels during the dry season. ENVISION implemented the next MDA during the rainy season, and successfully reached a higher percentage of the population.
- Challenge your assumptions. We work in dynamic environments and must continue to be curious and investigate our assumptions. Ground-truthing our assumptions is part of implementation and allows for adjustment.
MERLA staff for the USAID Promoting Tanzania’s Environment, Conservation and Tourism (PROTECT) activity realized that they needed to adjust the activity’s theory of change to achieve their goals. While their initial theory of change focused on intervening at the community level, PROTECT staff realized they needed to intervene at the national level to influence policy. PROTECT staff worked with USAID to design a new theory of change and continue to monitor its validity as the project progresses.
- Collaboration is the glue that holds everything together. Without bringing the right players to the table, evidence remains siloed and is not harnessed to make improvements. It’s vital to include partners, donors, and fellow implementers to share learnings and act on them. Without including collaborators at multiple levels in conversation, there are important stakeholders who are not considered, and the implementation continues to struggle instead of achieving desired results.
The staff of the USAID Uganda School Health and Reading Program brought together stakeholders from the Ministry of Basic Education and Sports, local government, teachers colleges, other implementing partners, and teachers to develop a multi-level collaboration approach that allowed them to learn and discuss project successes and failures in a continuous and intentional feedback loop. Purposeful collaboration and discussion enabled them to improve teacher training.
- CLA drives sustainability and self-reliance. The collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) framework builds the capacity of partners to review learning and implement programmatic adaptations.
In addition to improving learning within development projects, we must also build the capacity of government and community partners to use data and evidence to learn and adapt on their own. The staff of the USAID Kenya Youth Employment and Skills activity worked alongside Vocational Training Centers (VTCs) in Kenya to build the Centers’ capacity to monitor key indicators and assess the effectiveness of their work to improve youth employment, among other outcomes. This support has helped VTCs internally assess their performance, adjust strategy, and advocate for funding and resources to further engage youth in vocational training.
With these and other lessons learned under our belts, we are excited to continue our collaboration with colleagues across East Africa and worldwide as we continue to use MERLA to improve programs and deliver better results.
See a video all about the East Africa Learning Summit below!