Learning the Hard Way in Development Aid

Written by Valerie Brown

Through the act of learning we are able to acquire new knowledge and further our understanding of a certain topic or area. Learning also encompasses reflection on the past and how those reflections are relevant to our current situation. However in the context of development aid the process of learning is often understood in a different way and tends to come from a place of negative growth.

In the duration of a funded project, a local partner implements a program that has been agreed upon between the facilitating NGO and/or a donor body. In order to prove this money has been well spent, along with various financial reports and audits, the partner must write a narrative report describing the various activities and outputs of their project. This report includes descriptions of beneficiaries, relationships, goals, and finally one of the last sections in this report is labelled “learnings” or “lessons learnt”. In this section they are able to list what went wrong, why, and what they did to overcome the obstacle, often without much guidance. This section may include a myriad of things, from unexpected political activities and their repercussions to problems with group motivation, to scheduling difficulties, and much more. It is at the discretion of the local organization on what to include and what to leave out.

The problem with this type of learning is that it begins with the question “What went wrong?”, which then leads to “How did we fix it?”. Although these questions and the answers they produce are certainly useful in their own right, these are not the learnings we look for. By beginning with the negative we equate our learnings with our project hinderances. We need to remember to ask ourselves, “what went well, and why?”. One reason the process of gaining learnings may not by completed in a thorough way is because these lessons are not weighted with much value. During the final reporting phase the “learnings” portion could be just one page amongst 50 others of more technical and demanding writing. In addition, it is always the negative events or obstacles that stick out in our mind and which are the easiest to record and show progress on.

Now we find the narrative report on the desk of the donor or facilitating NGO, awaiting evaluation and most importantly, approval. This report is meant to give a broad and meaningful picture of the project, the goals achieved, description of activities, strategy, and performance. The report is read, compared to the initial project guidelines, assessed and numbers (beneficiaries, gender balance etc) are recorded in an available system. After a brief read through the learning section the project is approved or the partner is asked to elaborate further on certain lacking details. Once all details are acquired the report is saved in the systems and checked off as approved. This is often where the learning process ends, or perhaps was never begun to begin with.

As development aid struggles to keep up with an evolving society, a changing climate, and technical solutions that push at the barriers of our realities, our own learning as the practitioners becomes paramount to our survival. This is not a call to lay blame on the learning systems, or data collection we use, nor is it to lay blame on those tasked with the creation or review of these learnings. We all can understand the importance of learning and reflection in our quest to adapt, create more efficiencies, and cause less harm. However, until the process of learning and the value of this qualitative information is placed in a higher standing it will remain neglected. Until we can fully understand the importance within our project work, we can begin by highlighting the importance of learning on an individual level.

If we all proceed blindly through our own lives we miss the chance to reflect on critical moments in our past, on the indecisions and decisions that drastically affected ourselves and others around us, on the lessons we learned but then forgot months later. Through our own reflection, and greater awareness of learning we can better further our collective knowledge, and more easily see important lessons that will help us evolve ourselves and our programs. Count not the years that have gone by you, nor the money in your account, for that is putting numbers above all else. Instead take a moment to think about your own life…What is going well, and why? What was one of the most impactful decisions you’ve made recently? Why did you make this choice?


Valerie Brown currently works as a program officer and knowledge management expert for resilience development in fragile countries. Her background in biological sciences and environmental governance drives her passion for global sustainable development.

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