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Reflections on the Bond Conference 2016

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By Christina Haberl, DEPP MEL Team Manager

This week I attended the annual Bond Conference and after the event I now find myself torn between two sensations: looming disillusion and cautious optimism. If you have time, read on and I will try and explain what I mean.

As part of the Monitoring Evaluation and Learning Team of the Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme we are all about learning, so I wanted to take a couple of moments to reflect to ensure the two days at the conference amount to more than a handful of business cards, illegible handwritten notes and goody bags full of post it notes and pens (so many pens!).

The event had an impressive list of panellists and interesting sounding breakout session so I had great expectations.  In the first keynote session (‘the best of times and worst of times for global civil society’) a big question mark was raised by keynote  speaker Danny Sriskandarajah (Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS) whether current engagement of local civil society organisations (CSOs) in global processes such as the consultations for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) are actually just ‘window dressing’. This point was confirmed by Degan Ali (Executive Director of Adeso) who was commended by a Humanitarian Director of a large INGO for explaining her ‘pissedoffness’ about this (and this is a direct quote so apologies for any offence caused). Frankly, if I represented a local NGO/ CSO/ politician I would be annoyed too when my expertise continues being ignored in favour of people from large INGOs or a UN cluster system, that is not best placed to respond to my emergencies.

Another point that made me and I suspect others, feel gloomy was the confirmation that as a sector we do not learn. Even where we do take time to reflect it is not clear what happens with lessons learned. Conversations now are the same as 15-20 years ago. The call for ‘reflection’, learning from failure and adaptive management is not a new one – so why the heck are we not doing it? The answer: NGOs are groaning under the burden of reporting while at the same time there is a lack of utility of said reports. Hard working staff are stuck on a conveyor belt of continuous firefighting on implementation that simply leaves no time for reflection. Or as one panellist said ‘People are not anti-learning – it is just that other things are prioritised’. Depressing.

A final buzzword to round off my disillusions – collaboration. In every talk I attended the importance of networks, collaboration or partnership got a shout out, yet there was no commitment or vision from any of the speakers (particularly from large INGOs) what this should or could look like at scale. Or as Sarah Brown (founder and president of the children’s charity Theirworld) said, as a sector we are simply ‘mean, competitive and brand protecting’. Yet it is the future – funding from large donors is increasingly channelled through networks investing in collaborative approaches. We really have to get firm on our commitments, figure out how to do it at scale and walk the walk. Because to me it certainly feels like that as a sector we prefer to talk (a lot).

In sum, we are ignoring people who could do a better job than we do, keep repeating the same costly mistakes and fail to work together.

So what about that cautious optimism? Well, for me it all relates to our programme, the Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme. The DEPP, for those of you who do not know, is a programme implemented collaboratively by consortia of currently 44 partners across 10 countries, seeking to improve the capacity of local partners to be able to work more effectively, and by learning and sharing exactly what works and does not work. Collaboration, localisation and learning – aside from winning development buzzword bingo, what brings about my ‘cautious optimism’ is that I believe that we could actually crack this.

Learning does not happen in itself – but where learning is a programme outcome all of a sudden this could become an entirely different story. The donor wants, the donor gets. One of the five DEPP results is entirely devoted to learning, and that is huge. 11% of programme funds are dedicated to programme level MEL. So could we actually be the programme that figures out meaningful reflection, learning and adaptive management?

Storytelling, case studies, anecdotes – traditionally branded ‘soft and fluffy’ compared to hard data are on the rise and there is a growing understanding of the value of qualitative data. As Irene Guijt (Head of Research at Oxfam GB) said ‘1000 anecdotes stop being stories – they become data’. This is the stuff that evidence in the DEPP is made of. Could we be the network that figures out how to use qualitative data to tell the story of change and help to bring back humanity in reporting on results?

While our experience about collaboration within the DEPP so far may not be so much about the ‘what works’ than the ‘what does not work’ we are starting to see glimpses of ‘collaborative advantage’ of working in consortia and importantly how we can evidence it. Could this be a first true step towards more effective collaboration in the humanitarian sector in the future?

And finally, but most importantly what gives me cause for cautious optimism is that the DEPP could be the programme that puts local NGOs and CSOs at the forefront when it comes to preparedness. To illustrate this I want to use an example from the conference and Nepal where a small development NGO found themselves in the midst of the country’s biggest humanitarian crisis to date providing relief in some of the country’s worst affected regions. Getting to grips with the complex, jargon and process infested waters of the UN cluster system was an immense struggle. In this process large INGOs stepped in to help in navigating these waters, enabling the small local NGO to continue to operate. These INGOs did so because they understood that the local staff of this particular small, local NGO could do what they could not: provide the best possible, context appropriate and immediate relief to disaster affected populations. Now think of a world where all local NGOs and CSOs had the capacity and access to resources of doing so before a disaster strikes…

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