Learning’. A great buzzword, but are we really doing what we say?

September 7, 2016

The new focus on ‘learning’ in aid projects is a welcome one. But Pyae Phyo Maung argues that a real learning culture will not drop from heaven. 

We have heard the word ‘learning’ everywhere in the aid industry. It has become a buzzword among development workers. 

 

Why? The logic is simple but convincing. 

 

In previous accountability focused monitoring systems, apart from donor reporting, there was little use of internal program data. Questions like ‘How did the program make difference? What are the alternative ways of solving problems?’ remained difficult to answer. 

 

So people started thinking about making changes in systems towards learning oriented. 

 

Many development organizations are now making changes in their internal M&E systems to make them more learning oriented. 

Some organizations even include learning as one of their core program objectives. Some donors are also pushing their recipients to become more learning oriented. 

 

The expectations are high, the intention is good and the initiatives are welcomed. But the reality is uneasy.

 

Recently I met with some program managers from organizations that are being pushed by their donors to use the Theory of Change (ToC) approach for their M&E system. But on reflection, they said the process was nothing more than a ‘tick the box’ exercise. 

 

A project manager said, ‘Yes, we have this system. Then what? We can’t change the indicators and we can’t change the target and activities. Everything is fixed. So how can we adapt our program based on our own learning? Learning just stops on the paper.’ 

 

Although they are say they are promoting learning, some donors are still rigid in allow partners to take dynamic actions based on their learning. It means learning but disconnected from action. So the incentive is not there.

 

Similarly, there is another organisation with an internal learning mandate. But in that organization, staff don’t have time to learn, and senior staff lack commitment to the process so the organisation doesn’t really learn as intended.

 

For me, I personally think that to really enjoy the benefits of a learning system, a learning culture is needed in an organization. 

But it will not drop from the heaven. It requires a long process of initiating the system, promoting use of learning and encouragement of each other’s learning.

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