Real-time learning in the Southern Africa food crisis
by Moira Reddick May 2003

The Southern Africa food crisis highlights yet again the humanitarian community’s failure to learn the lessons of the past.

The notion that the humanitarian community is reluctant to learn is not new; again and again, evaluations of responses find that individuals, organisations and the system as a whole fail to learn from their experience, and to carry these lessons forward in any systematic way. While many agencies have sought to put in place mechanisms to improve their own organisational learning, there has been no multi-sectoral, cross-organisational work aimed at facilitating and promoting field-level learning. This article describes one such initiative, the ALNAP Learning Support Office (LSO), and its field-testing in Malawi.

Background to the LSO

ALNAP members have been trying to develop a way to encourage effective learning at field level for some time. Discussions began with the Kosovo crisis of 1999, and consultations in the field in Orissa, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Malawi verified that there was a need for such a mechanism. According to fieldworkers, the greatest obstacles to learning were lack of time, conflicting priorities, information overload and difficulties in getting hold of documentation and accessing email and the internet.

The consultation process confirmed that, to be credible, any learning service would need to engage directly with those in the field, help them to prioritise and synthesise information and provide on demand as wide a body of knowledge and learning as possible. It would also need to arrive with a predetermined set of tools and resources at its disposal, and be established for a sustained period of time. Issues of access and time would mean that a remote learning service (such as a website or email list) was unlikely to be well-used, or up to speed with the current needs and priorities of people working in rapidly-evolving humanitarian crises.

Out of the interviews, three sets of learning needs and consequent possible activities emerged:

  • ‘learning in’, providing learning already gathered in other comparable contexts, as well as agreed good practice;
  • ‘lateral learning’, mapping knowledge and learning already contained within the response and affected populations, and sharing this knowledge with others; and
  • ‘learning out’, capturing good practice and learning gained from the response in question, rapidly sharing this with others working in similar contexts and speeding up the lesson-learning cycle.

These three sets of activities would run concurrently, though initially more emphasis might be placed on ‘learning in’ and ‘lateral learning’.

ALNAP members approved the testing of the Learning Support Office (LSO) in 2001. While the objective of the LSO concept was to make a positive impact on the quality of emergency response, the Test LSO would verify the concept in a slow-onset emergency context, and obtain evidence to allow it to be refined and/or adapted to other types of disaster.

According to the plan, the Test LSO was to consist of a physical, independently-located office. This would contain a resource centre, which would provide physical and electronic access to toolkits, evaluations, training videos and CD-Roms, guidebooks and documented good practice. The Test LSO would also be able to draw on the combined resources of ALNAP’s Full Member organisations. It would be staffed by a project director and programme officers, experienced in managing humanitarian response, with a knowledge of cutting-edge good practice and training and facilitation skills; and by a resource centre manager, with experience in the field and the latest information-management skills. As well as trying to address issues and problems directly, the Test LSO staff would, in line with identified learning needs, facilitate those offering training or other forms of support to fieldworkers. As far as possible, the Test LSO would avoid duplicating the efforts of those already on the ground, or willing to intervene.

The Test LSO in Malawi

ALNAP considered 15 potential sites, and selected Malawi following a preliminary consultation and feasibility trip to clarify the nature of learning needs on the ground, the level of existing resources and the support available for the test.

The LSO Steering Group is responsible for managing the project director, and an Advisory Group of stakeholders at field level will work with the director to identify learning needs and ensure the timeliness and appropriateness of the Test LSO’s activities. The Test LSO is ‘hosted’ by the Malawi Red Cross in-country.

The Test is now under way, and will run until March 2003, coincident with Malawi’s next major harvest. It will be subject to real-time evaluation, to see what effect it has on the quality of the response, and the effectiveness of the different learning techniques employed. Given the emergency conditions in Malawi, Test personnel face a major challenge in identifying effective in-country partners and ensuring an appropriate exit strategy. Should the next harvest or the crisis escalate, these challenges will only increase.

The aims of the Test LSO in Malawi are:

  • to determine whether, in practice, there is a ‘market’ for any of its proposed activities;
  • to identify its most consistent users;
  • to confirm which of its activities, if any, it can deliver effectively;
  • to identify the constraints to effective delivery, and whether these can be addressed;
  • to prioritise activities on the basis of the market and capacity to deliver effectively;
  • to identify the key factors in effective delivery and replicability/transferability to other activities;
  • to establish where the Test LSO’s resources (human and financial) can be most effectively used;
  • to identify linkages/partnerships/mechanisms (international and local) that might make on-site learning more effective, and avoid duplication; and
  • to develop at least one possible exit strategy, and implement such a strategy.

The LSO team’s first major activity is to facilitate the expansion and refining of the guidelines on community-based food distribution being used by the Joint Emergency Food Aid Programme (JEFAP) Consortium. The process involves three regional workshops bringing the field officers from JEFAP member agencies together so as to draw lessons from the initial round of aid distributions. Lessons from community-based general food distribution in other operations are being drawn from documents in the LSO’s comprehensive resource centre collection. The principal output is a practical manual tailored specifically to the situation in Malawi, that covers the whole cycle from community sensitisation to post-distribution monitoring. Experience of the workshops so far has been positive, and many agencies have responded warmly to the LSO ‘getting stuck in and proving itself’. Bringing the field officers together, most of them for the first time, is proving a rich source of individual and cross-agency learning in itself. The fact that the agencies have already gained some experience during the first round of distributions provides ‘lateral learning’, and gives the LSO a role which, by combining the facilitation of ‘lateral learning’ with ‘learning in’ from other operations, is probably more acceptable to agencies than one based solely on ‘learning in’.

Other planned activities include video filming at distribution sites to facilitate peer exchange and learning between agency personnel; tailored training programmes (the first of which are planned in conjunction with RedR, which has just completed a training needs assessment facilitated by the Test LSO); and other forms of learning support to the government and other agencies (international and local) engaged in relief and recovery. While the precise form these other types of learning support will take are not yet clear, it is likely that they will include a mix of informal after-work discussion meetings, facilitation of after-action reviews, workshops, newsletters and the distribution of CD-Roms to people in the field with slow, patchy or no internet connections. Through these measures, Test LSO personnel will ensure that the knowledge and learning which already exists is shared between individuals and organisations. Hopefully, this process will also encourage a stronger understanding of why learning works in some contexts but not in others, and assist in identifying measures to reduce impediments to learning.

The challenges the Test faces are clear. One of the major questions is whether the mechanisms it develops can be sustained. Its six-month time frame will require sustained effort to ensure demonstrable impact; the indicators developed to measure impact will need to be constantly tested and refined during the course of the Test; personnel will face the same issues as operational agencies when seeking to consult and work with community-based organisations and beneficiaries; and consistent attention will be required if the Test LSO is to remain inclusive, and to work for the benefit of the entire humanitarian community in Malawi.

Moira Reddick was the set-up consultant for the Test LSO. The LSO is located at Taurus House (off Convention Drive) in Lilongwe. Visitors are encouraged, to use the resource centre or to share experiences and information with Test LSO personnel. Alternatively, email the office at office@lsomalawi.org. The Test LSO website, with regular updates on the activities of the Test LSO, is at www.lsomalawi.org.

References and further reading

Humanitarian Action: Improving Performance Through Improved Learning, ALNAP Annual Review 2002 (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2002).

For an extensive bibliography of related resources, see the Learning Support Office website: www.lsomalawi.org.