Learning in Action: Action Learning in Humanitarian Fieldwork

‘Don’t be still. One of the most common mistakes when change is upon us is to take enormous amounts to time to run analysis and come up with various routes to be followed. Sitting still in moving waters will only lead to a ship becoming adrift, with no indication of where it will end up or whether it will sink. If adjusting the course is needed, the leader should do it quickly and without hesitation.’
Raluca Cristescu

​The past 12 months have been a testing time for leaders and practitioners in all sectors and parts of the world. Covid-19 has created a plethora of challenges and opportunities and pressed people, politics and systems to the limits. Just as the pandemic was starting to emerge, Action Learning Associates (ALA) embarked on a new venture aimed at piloting the use of action learning as a real-time learning methodology in fast-paced, complex, humanitarian field-based contexts.

These pilot workshops were commissioned by ALNAP – a global network of NGOs, UN agencies, members of the Red Cross/Crescent Movement and others, dedicated to learning how to improve response to humanitarian crises. The goal of the workshops was to support the effective use of ALNAP’s forthcoming Action Learning Resource Pack, and they form part of ALNAP’s broader project to support learning among humanitarian practitioners working in crisis contexts. ALA’s role has been to train and mentor practitioners to run their own action learning groups.

We have, to date, worked alongside international and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with participants based in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Malaysia. Most training groups have included a diverse mix of countries, cultures, genders and organisations. Ruth Cook (ALA Director) and Nick Wright (ALA Associate) have taken the lead; both having a background of working with NGOs in diverse countries and humanitarian contexts as well as expertise in action learning training and facilitation.

This pilot to stress-test action learning in such contexts has proven a very timely venture in so many different ways. Participants we have worked with have been grappling with difficult and often multiple, intersecting and complex issues on the ground as diverse as drought, crop failure, swarms of locusts, famine, disease, military conflict, civil unrest, weak and unstable infrastructure, community mobilisation, internal displacement, protection and rehabilitation in war zones and refugee movements across borders; with Covid-19 and all its implications overlaid on top.

One of the first challenges ALA faced was how to run the training online, given the Covid-19 travel restrictions and that participants in the field often only have mobile phones rather than laptops, and very patchy internet access. A second challenge was how to create viable training groups when the nature of participants’ work meant they were often highly time-pressured already and could be called away at a moment’s notice if a new emergency arose, or an existing one got worse. A third was how to navigate cross-cultural dynamics between different participants in training groups.

After spending some time preparing training materials and liaising with agencies over the most suitable participants and humanitarian contexts, the training got underway at the end of 2020 with 5 training groups taking part in 5 x 2-hour workshops. The training enabled participants to experience 3 different action learning methods (problem-solving; appreciative; collaborative) and we included flexible contingencies to pick up any participants who missed a workshop on route. We also built-in personalised, post-training, follow-up support for participants as they lead their own groups.

At the time of writing (March), indications are positive that participants have found action learning very useful. ALA’s approach, which has involved continually adapting to the oft rapidly-shifting needs of and challenges faced by participants, has proved critical to ensure training success. The use of a variety of action learning methodologies has provided participants with a suite of options to use and adapt to the different individuals, groups and issues they are working with. We are looking forward to the results of a formal external evaluation of this programme later in 2021. Watch this space!

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