Humanitarian organisations work in a system characterised by numerous challenging requirements. The need to do the best for the people in need while also answering to requirements from institutional donors and the public – in order to raise funds. The need for organisations to act globally and work in some of the world’s most inhospitable locations. The need to constantly adapt to new cultures, different types of partners and to ever-changing security conditions, time pressures and much more.
These conditions call for continuous adaptation, coordination, networked working, reflection and learning, as well as preparation for the next emergency. Cross-organisational learning provides one effective way of delivering on these various fronts. Although by no means easy, knowledge can be better shared and applied when humanitarian organisations join up to systematically listen and learn from statements coming directly from affected populations and local staff.
This article presents insights from a recent cross-organisational learning initiative and runs through what needs to be in place, what is good to have and what absolutely needs to be avoided for such initiatives to work. The success of the initiative demonstrates that effective learning across institutional barriers is possible in the humanitarian sector. The initiative builds upon knowledge from many years of testing and analysing approaches for action-oriented learning based on realities from project locations.
The starting point for any cross-organisational learning process is the willingness of at least one organisation to act as an initiator. In 2013, staff members of Swiss Caritasapproached other Swiss humanitarian organisations in order to launch a learning initiative about shelter and housing programmes. To date, six other organisations have joined the process: Swiss Red Cross, Medair, Solidar, HEKS (the aid organisation of the Protestant Churches of Switzerland) as well as donors Swiss Solidarityand the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
ebaixand MomoLogue supported the initiative as external stakeholders by structuring the process and bringing in approaches and methods for field assessments, filming and effective learning in workshops.
The aid agencies involved selected the main learning topics in a participatory way – using elements of the Open Space methodology. The three main topics were: quality and usage of the aid provided, beneficiary selection and beneficiary contributions. The organisations then commissioned a series of field-based assessments, focusing on already closed operations: Balkans (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo), Indonesia (Jogjakarta and Padang/Sumatra earthquakes) and Central America (Hurricane Mitch, Nicaragua and Honduras). These country assessments comprised mainly of interviews at household level and in-depth interviews with former local staff. Many interviews were recorded on film.
Each country case study was followed by a highly inter-active workshop with the participating agencies. Short films and other ways of visualisation brought the voices of the affected people and local staff into the seminar rooms. The films usually served to kick-off debates about what should be learned from the observations in these contexts. The statements on film proved to be powerful messages, some were emotional and touched the audience. Most importantly, unlike statements captured in classical M&E processes, these statements are incontestable as they are first-hand accounts.
The key success factor for this kind of cross-organisational learning is the creation of a protected learning environment. If this kind of learning space is in place, agency staff are willing to learn with each other and from each other. Interviewees share openly their views, concerns and recommendations. Even in front of a camera.
Creating this fruitful learning environment requires a number of ingredients. Learning from contexts that are not in the spotlight is one good way of creating a protected learning environment. The Swiss initiative selected country studies with humanitarian programmes closed for 6, 10 or even 15 years. A shared interest in one theme and an open-minded attitude are further important elements. The initiative needs to be well-structured, planned and communicated.
Transparency among the participating stakeholders is crucial. At any given point in time, participants need to know what is happening and why. Participants also need to have the trust that no information from the process is shared with a wider audience or with the public. The films for example cannot be used for public relations and are not accessible in any public domain. They are however used as instructive material in seminars and trainings open to humanitarian workers from other organisations.
External facilitation can help in structuring the overall process as well as running the learning events. Knowledge of on-site data collection helps obtain adequate data directly from those most concerned by the programmes, without overstretching budgets.
In the case of the Swiss initiative, six learning workshops have been organised in a two-year period. Some of the participating agencies linked the process up to their own internal learning schemes. The initiative generated new knowledge about the use of shelters and houses. The participating agencies learned directly from affected populations how they perceive beneficiary selection and programme modalities. In a number of cases, the approach helped identify blind spots that have subsequently been addressed.
Working in humanitarian action requires constant reflection and learning with, and from, each other. The example from Switzerland shows what is needed to maximise learning benefits. The approach probably can be pushed further to incorporate more in-depth involvement of affected populations and, equally important, of local staff. Certain elements of the methodology are negotiable and ‘light versions’ are certainly possible.
The systematic reflection process can be tailor-made to specific contextual needs. But can the approach be integrated directly into an on-going disaster response? To what extent is it useful for decision-making and strategy formulation? Can the approach serve as a starting point for an organisational change process, which leads to project management based on action-oriented learning? Gaining experience with more organisations willing to apply innovative ways of learning and decision-making will help in finding the answers.
Ralf Otto is a facilitator at MomoLogue. MomoLogue is a Brussels-based non-for-profit organisation. MomoLogue provides opportunities and room for dialogue, learning, joint analysis, planning and reflection.
 Since 2005, the author has taken part in similar reflection and learning initiatives. Due to the internal character of these initiatives, publicly available documentation of these processes is not available.
 ebaix promotes cross-organisational learning from a long-term perspective, focusing on the views of those affected by emergencies (www.ebaix.ch). MomoLogue works with groups and organisations to promote joint learning based on evaluation (www.momologue.be).
 Excerpts from the films are shown in a short presentation about the approach here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ypnw0s6WHM