Twice the Participation in Half the Time: After Action Reviews in COVID-19

Mar 26, 2021 by Sani Dan Aoude and Emily Janoch Comments (0)

A woman from CARE's Honduras pilot voucher program holds a voucher for a supermarket.

After Action Reviews (AARs) have lots of benefits. They give teams a chance to learn from each other about what worked and what didn’t. They can provide immediate feedback on what needs to change. Done right, they give a chance for lots of stakeholders—participants, partners, governments, donors, implementers—to come together and understand what they need to change to get to better results.

They can also provide documentation to inform future activities. CARE’s policy requires that we conduct AARs after large-scale humanitarian crises—and we’ve been doing that for more than a decade. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to pull all of our AARs on response to epidemics to inform our response to the pandemic.

Most people agree that AARs are a great tool, but they can be a challenge. Finding the time and space to focus on them is always a challenge in an intense and fast-paced crisis. You need great facilitators who can make sure that everyone gets a chance to express their opinions and that the conversation is constructive. Before the coronavirus, CARE’s recommended tool on AARs for large humanitarian responses called for a 2-3 day in-person workshop with lots of partners.

So, what to do in a crisis like COVID-19, where a two-day workshop is simply not possible? CARE’s Cash and Markets team found a way to do virtual AARs, taking two hours on Zoom to highlight the key components of an AAR. They worked with country teams, partners, and stakeholders in Morocco, Haiti, Honduras, Ecuador, Lebanon, Guatemala and Vietnam to understand what we can learn about cash and voucher assistance in the pandemic.

What did we learn about learning?

  • Making space matters. All of the stakeholders—staff, partners, participants—liked having dedicated space to reflect on what happened, what worked, and how to improve. In the COVID universe, having any group of people consistently excited about a Zoom call is a win.
  • Keep it light and focused. Because it was on Zoom, the team focused explicitly on one area—cash and vouchers—rather than tackling the entire emergency response. Having short sessions on specific target areas can add up to a larger picture of the whole response.
  • Ask a few big picture questions. The team asked three questions: What worked? What could go better? What can we improve for next time? That’s it. Three questions set the tone for a conversation that could be honest about success and failure and generate concrete action steps and recommendations.
  • Connect learning across contexts. By having some consistency in facilitators across all seven AARs, the team could identify system-wide bottlenecks that no one team might have seen. The coordinated facilitation also helped share lessons and approaches between teams—some country teams solved problems others were still working through, so sharing those experiences improved everyone’s work.

What did we learn about cash and voucher assistance?

  • It's all about the preparation: It’s critical to get partnerships, agreements with service providers, technology, and communications strategies set up early. Ideally, this would happen as part of an emergency preparedness plan (EEP). If it’s not in EPP, doing that immediately will help determine the success or failure of an approach.
  • Get lots of folks involved: This means working in partnership—not just working with partners. Listening to what everyone has to say and making joint decisions has much better results than treating some organizations as implementers or sub-contractors. Two actors who got specific attention are:
    1. Communities need to be involved in targeting, setting expectations, communicating what's happening, and deciding on what tools and technology will work.
    2. Administration and procurement teams need to be involved early to understand what’s changing from a non-emergency context and how everyone can work together to make sure the project is meeting people’s needs.
    • Communication is key: Teams that had strong communication plans with a range of actors, including Financial Service Providers, and tools found better results than ones who added communications to their planning later. This was especially true for communicating with communities and participants.
    • Focus on feedback: to be successful, projects need robust feedback mechanisms. They also need to make sure that community members understand how to use those tools, and that staff are responding to the issues that come up. All that makes stronger, more accountable programs.
    • Understand the context: building on solid gender analysis and needs assessments was critical to success. That includes understanding what digital tools make sense in the context, and what level of digital skills exists with staff, partners, and communities so the project can use the right tools and training to get the job done.

    What did we change?

    AARs are only as good as the actions you take to get better. So, what did we do?

    • Lebanon used their COVID-19 cash AAR to shape their cash transfers in response to the Beirut blast.
    • Ecuador updated design of projects with multiple cash transfers, so people had more consistent support.
    • Change global technical support. The global team used these lessons to think about what tools and support they could provide to country teams to ensure that responses with cash or vouchers had the best impacts possible. That includes focusing on helping people apply and adapt Standard Operating Procedures. It also helped to understand operational constraints within the CARE systems, where advisors can advocate for change.

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