Experiencing CLA in practice

By Adriana Abreu-Combs, Chief of Party at the QED Group

‘Practicing CLA entails a mind shift,’ noted a trainee during a class imparted by the QED Group team in Egypt in late 2021. This refection could not be more spot on.

According to USAID, “Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) is a set of practices that help us improve our development effectiveness.” Definition and resources aside, I keep getting questions about what CLA is and how it works in practice. Most importantly, with few experts in the field, who can make this all make sense and happen on the ground, it reminds me of the very questions in my mind when this was also new to me, before I witnessed and took part in this journey as Chief of Party of a USAID-funded MEL platform that facilitated CLA.

There is no shortage of resources on CLA. The USAID Learning Lab includes a complete toolkit, handouts, training and more. USAID-funded MEL platforms are being tasked with imparting such training and facilitating this transformational experience. But it is the combination of those resources and hands-on field application and observational experience that brought it all home for me — the mind shift. Here is what I experienced and observed.

It is a gradual, incremental journey of discovery and awakening. It requires an inquiring mind, without reservations. It entails changing how people perceive learning and how they open up for learning and adapting as a result; and how one may carve out opportunities for collaborating inward and outward for a purpose. It requires being intentional about all of this and weaving this framework into all that is done — from planning, designing, executing, monitoring and evaluating. For example, it is possible to put a CLA spin in traditional M&E tasks such as Data Quality Assessments (DQAs) by approaching the DQA exercise as an opportunity to learn and improve, and bringing partners on board with this perspective from the outset; or to intentionally add a pause-and-reflect exercise to inform evaluations and assessments; or to co-create with potential partners in the programming design phase, to build in collaboration from the beginning. Again, all it takes is a shift in mindset as to how to approach these otherwise traditional planning and M&E tasks.

It is a boundless creative process. CLA opens up an exciting box of innovative ideas and ways of doing things differently. And by doing that, it unleashes an exciting experience for those planning CLA tasks and imparting this excitement on others. I saw this all happening innumerous times as ideas flowed during planning and flared up for participants when it was showtime, for example during participatory learning fairs.

It no doubt entails an openness to taking ‘smart’ risks to test new ideas and approaches. For example, in the context of learning fairs and events, new ways of doing things may at times need to be tried and adjusted next time, for they may run differently than originally planned. In my experience the trial stage by no means detracted from the excitement of ‘the new.’ In monitoring and evaluation tasks, a learning lens requires genuinely being open to learn not only from what worked well but also from what can be done better. Orchestrating a mind shift in this area takes time and effort. It means as well that there must be a safe space to fail and to learn from it and adapt as a result. In the end, where there is openness to taking risks, these candid exercises can go a long way to strengthen current and future efforts.

It requires an ability to unlearn and start from a clean slate. In this context, unlearning means stripping away preconceived notions and beliefs about things and ways of doing them. It means challenging these assumptions and embracing new ways of thinking about or doing them. An example is a field-based portfolio review where open-ended, well-crafted learning questions can foster true learning by allowing curious minds the freedom to take in what emerges from this discovery exercise, without pre-set parameters.

Importantly, in order for CLA to thrive, there needs to be a supportive operating environment behind it. It needs endorsement from high and middle leadership levels for it to take hold, be resourced appropriately and gain the needed buy-in from within. It needs champions willing to devote time and effort, and willing to take risks, think outside the box, and do things differently. Experience shows that the results are well worth the risk, resources, and effort.

Above all, putting CLA into practice is a fun and mind-blowing experience.