If the Journey to Self-Reliance is to Succeed, We Need to Strengthen Local Capacity to Collaborate, Learn, and Adapt

May 3, 2019 by Monalisa Salib Comments (2)

USAID’s approach to development - the Journey to Self-Reliance - focuses our collective efforts on building the capacity and commitment of partner countries to lead their own development. As Administrator Mark Green has said, “the purpose of foreign assistance should be ending its need to exist.”

One critical aspect of self-reliance is a country’s capacity to plan, finance, and implement solutions to local development challenges. Results of a recent systematic review of empirical research on organizational resilience reveal that we need to think holistically about capacity and ensure that we include the ability to collaborate, learn, and adapt in how we define capacity. Why? Because collaborating, learning, and adapting practices increase organizational resilience, and organizational resilience improves development outcomes.

CLA practices & approaches and its tie to organizational resilience and better development outcomes

What is organizational resilience and why does it matter?

In order for institutions and communities to progress on their journey to self-reliance, they need - among other things - to effectively manage acute shocks (such as natural disasters or political upheaval) and chronic stressors (such as poor health and education outcomes).

This critical ability is known as organizational resilience; resilient organizations are able to “continue to meet objectives in the face of challenges.” They are able not only to withstand those acute shocks and chronic stresses but “also [to] adapt and transform” as a result of working through them.1 Put simply, organizational resilience matters because it means institutions, communities and local systems can overcome challenging circumstances and come out stronger on the other side.

So, what enables organizational resilience?

A recent systematic review of empirical literature2 on organizational resilience - how it is defined and what enables primarily within the health sector - provides some answers. It turns out that many of these important enabling factors can be found in the Collaborating, Learning & Adapting (CLA) framework. The authors are likely unfamiliar with USAID’s CLA framework, but the connections to CLA concepts and practices are clear:

  • Information management: The authors note that "organizational resilience is widely identified as being dependent on how information is managed and used."3 Within the CLA framework, this appears under the Processes component (see Knowledge Management and Institutional Memory). In addition, the use of information is a common theme across the Learning and Adapting components in the framework.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Information ManagementKnowledge Management, Institutional MemoryDuring the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, information flows between the security services and state ministry of health strengthened health system resilience.4

  • Social networks and collaboration: Several studies led authors to conclude that "how well organizations establish and leverage their networks determines the extent to which they are resilient to everyday challenges and acute shocks." In addition, “collaboration among organizations in a networked environment also expands [organizations’] resources...and [improves their] ability to learn and capacity to respond.”5 The CLA framework highlights these same concepts, particularly under the Relationships and Networks subcomponent.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Social networks and collaborationCollaborating, Relationships and NetworksThai organizations that strategically collaborated with others were able to mobilize additional resources that were crucial to responding effectively to flooding. In fact, organizations in rural areas with stronger social networks were better able to respond to floods than those  in urban and suburban settings.6
  • Organizational culture: Interestingly, learning-oriented cultures result in greater organizational resilience. Resilient organizations “consider challenges as learning opportunities,” “nurture creativity by providing time and resources for experimentation,” and have a “tolerance for failure” and “an atmosphere in which employees [feel] safe to share new ideas.”7 Within the CLA framework, this sense of openness to new ideas and actions falls under the Culture component.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Organizational CultureCulture, Openness, Continuous Learning & ImprovementIn Jordan, insurance companies that did not intentionally learn from past experience experienced weakened organizational resilience, which limited their ability to respond to ongoing challenges, including competition from other companies, loss of customers, and financial losses.8
  • Preparedness and planning: Authors note that “one of the strategies used by organizations to prepare for crises or disasters is by going through scenario exercises.” Collaborative planning, including scenario planning, is one of the approaches promoted by the CLA framework under the Learning component.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Preparedness and planningScenario PlanningIn Lusophone African countries, researchers found that health systems would benefit from training health professionals to use scenario drills to prepare for possible disease outbreak.9

  • Governance process: The review found that certain governance practices, including decentralized decision-making, were critical to organizational resilience. Specifically, “resilient organizations adopted a form of governance characterized by distributed control, rather than top down hierarchy.” This enabled local actors to have the “flexibility that facilitated timely responses to everyday challenges.” This finding relates most closely to the Decision-Making subcomponent in the CLA framework, which recommends  that autonomy to make decisions rest with those closest to the work.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Governance processDecision-MakingIn Ivory Coast, decentralized decision-making at the state level enabled transport of pharmaceutical drugs to local drug stores during the civil war, resulting in reduced disruption of the drug supply.10

This research aligns with findings from our efforts to build the evidence base for CLA. The implication is that when organizations incorporate CLA practices and approaches, they can build their resilience to deal with challenges and transform for the better. If CLA practices contribute to organizational resilience, then we shouldn’t solely focus on integrating CLA practices within USAID and its traditional implementing partners. Rather, strengthening capacity must include partner country capacity to more effectively and intentionally collaborate, learn, and adapt. Stay tuned for follow-up posts in response to this blog from USAID colleagues giving examples of how we can do this in practice.

Barasa, Mbau, Gilson, 2018, p. 1

2 Reviewing only empirical research means the authors left out studies that were based on theory or belief and only included studies that are “based on observed and measured phenomena and derive knowledge from actual experience.” They also included research from a variety of country contexts, from Scandinavia to Sub-Saharan Africa. The authors note that this is the first review of its kind of organizational resilience in health systems strengthening. In total, they reviewed 34 papers (winnowing down from thousands) that met their criteria to answer the question: What enables organizational resilience?

Barasa, Mbau, Gilson, 2018, p. 7.

4 Ager et al, 2015

Barasa, Mbau, Gilson, 2018, p. 10

6 Andrew et al, 2016

7 Barasa, Mbau, Gilson, 2018, p. 9 

8 Sawalha, 2015

9 Lapao et al, 2015

10 Lembani et al, 2014


Thanks for this posting Monalisa, this is a good illustration of what self-reliance might translate to at the level of an organization. I would also posit that the flip side of resilience - being able to take advantage of new opportunities - is an equally important consideration for a strong organization. And in both cases, the areas of emphasis laid out in your post - culture and leadership, social capital, inclusive decision-making, information use and learning, and preparedness for new situations to emerge - are important.


Indeed, the focus on social capital and adaptiveness tracks with the latest thinking in capacity development - these are areas of emphasis in what we’ve typically called “Capacity 2.0.” This tends to in turn push more toward coaching, peer exchange, and accompaniment as ways to strengthen local organizations, rather than formal training.


In some of my work, I’ve used a monitoring tool (the Organizational Performance Index) with groupings of some very similar functions into performance areas of a high-capacity organization - that an effective organization should be effective, efficient, relevant, and sustainable.

So one way to think about investing in organizational resilience, perhaps through CLA methodologies, would be to ask “are we developing the right functions?” and also “is our support geared to build social capital and support locally-led learning and adaptation?” In any case, thanks for sharing!

posted 2 years ago
monalisa wrote:

Thanks, David, for your comment! I agree - these findings remind me of the evidence base that contributed to the thinking around Capacity 2.0. Also, good point about OPI. It has a lot of great points to consider when thinking about capacity that are aligned with CLA, like this one: "The ability of an organization to respond to the actual needs of its beneficiaries, to stay alert to any changes that influence this ability, and to alter its course of action and adjust its programming based on learning." It also made me think of how some USAID missions have also started using the CLA maturity tool with local organizations to have them self-assess and action plan to improve their CLA practices ultimately to improve development outcomes. The tool is now available in Arabic and French and we'll post the Spanish version shortly. Thanks again!

posted 2 years ago