February 16, 2024
Lessons learned vs. Learning lessons - Why learning matters

Why should we care about learning for development?

We believe in creating a peaceful and equitable world for all. International development cooperation is and will be key to create that world. It is my firm conviction that we need to effectively cooperate globally to tackle global challenges and create systems that feed into each other, instead of from each other. In one of my previous blogs, I argued that effective cooperation has learning from one another at its core

Nevertheless, NGOs, governments and civil society organisations currently do not yet learn from their work which results in a huge loss of knowledge, resources and impact. It is our responsibility to ensure that knowledge flows to where it is needed. 

In 1980, that is over 40 years ago, Korten highlighted that the “prevailing blueprint approach to development programming with its emphasis on detailed pre-planning and time bounded projects is itself cited as an important impediment” (p. 480). Since then, there has been widespread debate and agreement that a more adaptive approach to international development work is needed for it to be effective and sustainable. However, over the last decades, a push towards accountability, transparency and a resulting focus on “hard facts” and quantitative data could be observed. Donor requirements have shifted to evidence-based programming and everyone seems to be on the hunt for the “one way” that will make all development projects work. It feels as though it’s just a matter of understanding where exactly something is not going right, untying the knot, and all of a sudden “boom: development works”. 

However, as Schomerus points out in her book Live amid violence (available open source): “The understanding of causality in international development became ‘what works’, suggesting that there is an absolute truth to be discovered with the right tools. The notion of an absolute truth is, of course, deeply divisive and dangerous; the clearer the projected causality that is presented as part of an absolute truth, the more the space for compromise, questioning, diversity and collaboration shrinks.” 

Transactional vs. cooperative

Rather than the “absolute truth” about what works, development work should be understood as a cooperative exchange. At the moment international development is transactional: “I give you this, in return I get this”. I argue, it has to become cooperative. Cooperative in the sense that development work should be based on an exchange of expertise and experience in which local knowledge is combined with  “global” knowledge. 

We have to create spaces in which we can create conversations about what we are learning in development programmes and how knowledge from different parts of the world, from different people, holding different experiences and biases, can together form the “truth” and provide us with the way forward. I believe that the future of development lies in creating free flows of knowledge to where it is needed while making sure that this is based on an equitable exchange.

Lessons learned vs. learning lessons

“We believe learning is essential for driving impact. Through learning, we can better understand how complex social change happens—and design effective program strategies to support it.” - Ford Foundation
“Effective collaboration around knowledge management and organizational learning is a key contributor to improving the impact of international development work for the world’s most vulnerable people. But how can it be proven?” – Unicef
“USAID program implementation incorporates monitoring, evaluation, and collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) practices “for better development outcomes and [to] continuously improve as a learning organization that builds and uses evidence to inform decisions” – USAID

Scanning the websites and strategies of big organisations, by now, one can always find some section about knowledge and learning. Most importantly, all big organisations in development seem to agree that learning is key for improving their outcomes, which seems to be in line where the evidence is pointing us (exemplified by the quotes included above). The World Bank even goes as far as publishing their lessons learned in an online database or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands publishes all their central evaluation reports of development programmes, exclaiming that evaluations are used “To offer insight into why results were (or were not) achieved. The ministry can draw on lessons learned to improve policy”.

All of that is a great start. There is a general recognition that learning needs to happen and it is starting to become part of how we think about development work. But has that actually trickled down from these nice ambitions to the ground where the work actually happens? Having a vision and plan for learning or documenting lessons learned is one thing, the documentation, reflection and application of lessons actually happening is a complete other. When trying to dig deeper and exploring how the lessons from the World Bank or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are used, it gets a lot more vague and little can be found.

So, I am curious, what happens to all these lessons we are compiling? And are there any good examples where programmes learned from their lessons effectively?