Developing the ALNAP Learning Office Concept
by Kate Robertson June 2003

The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Assistance (ALNAP) is an interagency forum working to improve learning and accountability within the humanitarian system. Members include bilateral and multilateral donors; UN agencies and departments; NGOs and umbrella organisations; the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement; and independent academics, consultants and research institutes. ALNAP seeks to identify and disseminate good practice, and build consensus on common approaches.

The ‘Learning Office’ concept

The concept of a ‘learning office’ (LO) was born out of ALNAP discussions during the Kosovo crisis. Although aware of OCHA’s mandate for system-wide memory capture, the general view was that this was neither well-supported, nor delivering. ALNAP’s Members agreed that its cross-sector nature might allow it to play a useful role.

By the end of 1999, the principle of a dual-function LO as a provider and repository of information was well-supported within ALNAP. However, the lack of agreement on how an LO might be implemented made it impossible to put it to the test during the Kosovo, Orissa and East Timor crises. Full Members failed to achieve a consensus, primarily around issues of location, overlapping mandates and ‘client’ buy-in – that is, whether such a resource would be valued and supported by those it sought to serve.

Several fundamentals were nonetheless agreed. The LO’s mandate and activities should complement existing field-learning mechanisms, rather than overlap with them; its independence should not be compromised, despite the need to maintain critical UN links; and, most importantly, it had to establish its worth to over-stretched operational personnel at the height of a humanitarian response.

Phase 1: developing an LO model

In January 2000, ALNAP started fleshing out a model to address these issues by commissioning the Disaster Mitigation Institute (DMI) and Moira Reddick, an independent consultant, to undertake a retrospective field study of how an LO might have worked during the Orissa crisis. A complementary desk study was also commissioned from Moira Reddick to look at existing ‘Information Office’ models, thereby placing the Orissa findings in a wider context.

The study characterised the Orissa crisis as a rapid-onset natural disaster, and the humanitarian response to it as involving multiple actors, including volunteers and small NGOs, most of which had little or no relief experience. Those with experience were either unable or unwilling to share their knowledge with others.

The Orissa study involved some 60 interviews with representatives from government, donors, the UN, the Red Cross, INGOs, NGOs, community-based organisations and the media involved in the response to the crisis. These revealed a solid core of support for the LO, and a consistent view that, in the context of Orissa at least, it could have helped to promote better practice, both in combined and individual responses.

All those interviewed stressed the need to put learning-related issues on the agenda as an operational concept. The LO concept received a universally positive response from the policy-makers consulted. However, the cautious and occasionally sceptical response from those directly involved in implementing humanitarian programmes emphasised the need to prove the LO’s operational worth in situations where resources and time spent on learning-related issues were at the perceived expense of direct humanitarian action.

The role of the LO

The possibility of a coordination role for an LO was raised by several of those consulted. Although this was discussed at length, there was general consensus that to include coordination in an LO’s mandate would seriously compromise its neutrality and independence, and undermine its learning focus. Establishing a clear mandate would help mitigate against false expectations and the danger of an LO being sucked into a coordination role where a coordination vacuum existed.

In terms of a learning-support role, the learning flows to be supported by an LO were defined as:

  • ‘learning in’ from previous emergency situations for current use;
  • ‘lateral learning’ between organisations on the ground; and
  • ‘learning out’ by capturing learning on the ground for use in future emergency situations.

Existing ‘learning’ mechanisms

To address the issue of overlapping mandates, the desk study looked at the information offices (IOs) established by VOICE in Albania; the Humanitarian Community Information Centre (HCIC), a joint undertaking by the UNHCR and OCHA in Kosovo; and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) in East Timor.

The VOICE IO was established in May 1999 to assist with coordination through collecting, compiling and disseminating information on the current situation, and managing basic data, including contact lists, meeting summaries, import regulations and tax exemptions. The information was extremely specific, and was sought primarily by NGO personnel. No additional documentation or analysis was undertaken.

The HCIC works alongside the NGO Council, itself established in late 1998 by 40 NGOs wishing to share information and learning. The HCIC’s primary activities are collecting and disseminating situation-specific information. It has field-liaison and information officers, and an on-site representative from NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR). The HCIC acts as a contact point, making meeting and workshop facilities available to other humanitarian actors. It sees its client group as sector-wide.

The Darwin-based ACFOA IO was established to service the sector as a whole following the onset of the East Timor crisis. It offered meeting space, practical information and lines of communication. Although it facilitated communication and information flows, it neither filtered nor analysed information, and did not relocate to Dili when the UN mission deployed there in September 1999.

The desk study concluded that none of the information offices it assessed had ‘learning’ as part of its mandate. Those charged with running the IOs believed an LO would have complemented and potentially reinforced, rather than duplicated, their activities.

Emergency situations and the learning office

The desk study also proposed a tentative typology of five situation-specific LO models:

  1. ALNAP (Secretariat)-led/Independent: following a rapid-onset emergency, where no national ALNAP Full Member organisation is available and no security issues exist (during Mozambique’s floods, for example).
  2. ALNAP (Secretariat)-led under Full-Member Security Umbrella: following a rapid-onset emergency involving issues of security (Sierra Leone in 1999–2000; East Timor in 1999)
  3. ALNAP Full Member-led: where a Full Member is available and willing to lead (the DMI in Orissa).
  4. Locally-Supported: where ALNAP LO personnel would assume the role of advisors to a previously identified local-support partner organisation (in Bangladesh in 1998, or during Hurricane Mitch in 1999, for example).
  5. Humanitarian Community-led: in on-going emergencies, where a longer-term strategy than that envisaged by ALNAP would be appropriate.

Despite the specifics of the Orissa case and the need to test the typology through additional field visits, the consultants identified common factors fundamental to a successful LO, whatever the context:

  • neutrality and clarity of mandate and purpose, including a clear definition of ‘learning’;
  • ownership by ‘client’ groups;
  • preparedness with regard to core material, personnel, support procedures, equipment and funding;
  • provision of appropriate, context-specific material and personnel;
  • timely arrival;
  • prioritisation of the different learning objectives in relation to different stages in the response;
  • operational transparency;
  • a minimum commitment of six months; and
  • a well-defined exit strategy.

Phase 2: developing a detailed LO proposal

Following the presentation of Phase 1 findings to its Full Members in April 2000, ALNAP commissioned field visits to Sierra Leone and East Timor to be undertaken by Moira Reddick and independent consultant John Telford. These visits aim to verify the typology, identify potential support partners and produce a sufficiently developed ‘LO Proposal’ to allow the LO to be field-tested.

Putting it to the test

Identifying, gathering and collating relevant ‘material’ and ‘tools’ for the LO to take to the field is a crucial next step. The LO’s resources, whether human or material, have to be sharp, focused and accessible. If a prime reason for the continued lack of system-wide learning is the much-stated one of opportunity cost, then this ALNAP initiative will go some way towards limiting or sharing this cost, creating learning space and highlighting both the short- and long-term benefits of sharing and implementing lessons learned.

Kate Robertson is the Deputy Coordinator of ALNAP.

Additional information on ALNAP and the Learning Office can be obtained from the ALNAP website.

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