Creating a test bed for learning

Every humanitarian organisation is committed to learning, to improving our individual and collective performance to better serve people affected by crises. And as ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report shows, the sector has achieved a slow…


Time to read: 5 minutes

By Juliet Parker, ALNAP


Every humanitarian organisation is committed to learning, to improving our individual and collective performance to better serve people affected by crises. And as ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report shows, the sector has achieved a slow incremental improvement in the performance of the humanitarian system over time.

But the sector’s approaches to learning have, for the most part, reinforced existing humanitarian approaches and ways of working – it has enabled us to get better at what we are already doing. And this creates problems for a sector that is trying to adapt to the complex challenges ahead but struggles to harness the learning that already exists and to use it to create the change it wants to see.

Looking at patterns in humanitarian learning over the last two decades, there are many areas of improvement, particularly in technical areas such as cash, nutrition and health, among others. But the sector remains frustrated by its lack of progress on some of the key learning challenges, such as localisation, where the change the sector wants to see appears to sit in tension with the underlying business model of the sector. 

One of the biggest learning challenges facing the sector is how humanitarians can reconcile a business model built for speed and scale with their demands for a more customised, locally-led response.  And how to manage the cultural, procedural and systemic challenges that can make it happen. Evidence emerging from various pooled funds initiatives is beginning to show just how that can be done.

The Start Fund was set up with the intention of demonstrating a new model that could match global response capacity and speed, with the breadth of perspectives, experiences and learning that a diverse range of member organisations could bring. It was set up to create a space that didn’t already exist in our system. And from the beginning, it recognised the importance of learning on that journey.

With that in mind, there are several things it has done really well.

Firstly, it recognised the fundamental tension we face as humanitarians who are so focused on delivery that we can find it difficult to justify time and resources for reflection and learning. The humanitarian sector exists to alleviate the suffering of those affected by crisis, and as the needs continue to outstrip available resources we will always feel humanly driven to do more and deliver more. But from the outset, the Start Fund recognised the need to build into its structures not only mechanisms and processes for learning but also, critically, spaces for exchange and collective problem-solving.

Secondly, it recognised humanitarians can be so focused on delivery that the learning also remains at this level – focusing on how we get better at the projects we’re delivering without having sufficient opportunity to reflect on whether they’re even the right projects. Start Fund has consciously enabled the realisation of different learning loops. At the project and crisis level a focus on improving technical interventions and coordination. At the level of the Fund looking at how it can reflect on and improve the functioning of the mechanism in achieving its mandate. And as part of the wider Start Network portfolio, looking at how the fund can contribute to system change and improvement across the sector.

Thirdly, experience has taught us that the best humanitarian outcomes are usually achieved through collective action. This becomes a challenge where individual organisational interests appear to clash with those of the collective, or where the incentive for an organisation to go at it alone is stronger than to work collaboratively. A tension that the Start Fund has had to continuously grapple with at every level of its functions over the last 10 years, and I can only imagine has been pretty testing at times! But now the network has a wealth of learning to contribute to others on how to work together to set up the vision, partnerships, incentives, and discourses that enable this to happen successfully.

Fourthly, and this is a tough one, they have somewhat managed to address the inhibitors to learning that are inherent within the sectors competitive funding model – the incentive for agencies to keep their best learning to themselves in order to enhance their competitive positioning for funds. Creating trusted spaces and a win-win for organisations to engage with the collective. It’s a tough nut to crack. But key within this is the clear requirement for individuals on the project selection committees to step outside their organisational interests and to make the best possible decision together based on the information available to them on needs, response capacities, and resources.

Over 10 years the Start Fund has delivered a proof of concept, the ability to scale, and a wealth of learning at project, mechanism, and system level. As the humanitarian sector faces the challenges of an increasing funding gap, humanitarian organisations (and leaders in particular) will need to be continually reminded of the importance of both collective action and collective learning, rather than being tempted to go at it alone.  Certainly, in my opinion, by trying to navigate the dual challenges of maintaining scale and speed whilst increasing the quality of localised responses, the future should look increasingly pooled!

Read more about the Start Fund