USAID Learning Lab Blog: Lessons in Evolution

By Nadia Shadravan, QED Uganda’s Director of Performance Improvement

Five years ago, USAID’s Mission in Uganda was deep in the development of its Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) for 2016-2021 – the document outlining a cohesive, cooperative strategy for USAID programs there, across all of it’s private, public and non-profit partners. The task of developing a new strategy was an opportunity for reflection on the previous five years of transformation, which involved shifting the Mission’s structure and culture from a focus on the outputs and bureaucratic administration of USAID’s development programs, towards one that placed impact and continuous improvement at the center of all operations and activities.

The Ugandan Mission’s journey towards an adaptive, impact-driven way of working began in 2013, when our team at QED began supporting a pioneering approach to program management: Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA). CLA is a method of working that emphasizes three important processes to achieve goals:

  • Collaborating with stakeholders within an organization and the broader ecosystem where it works to consider other valuable perspectives and unique knowledge
  • Learning from analysis and experience – both within organizations and among others
  • Adapting approaches and decision-making using the information gathered in collaboration and learning activities, to drive continuous improvement

Whatever work you’re doing – in global development or elsewhere – you’re doing because you want to do it well, in a way that is efficient with the resources you have, in order to achieve the larger goals and benchmarks you’ve set for yourself. This was certainly the case for the Ugandan Mission, but its hardworking and dedicated team struggled to do this while juggling their competing day-to-day priorities. Staff were already busy managing contracts with implementing partners, tracking output-based performance indicators such as the number of farmers receiving assistance or business owners attending trainings, and reporting back to US-based colleagues via complex bureaucratic chains of command.

We quickly realized that CLA requires an enabling environment with structures, processes, and supportive leaders in place that facilitate its three core activities and encourage the uptake of CLA-oriented knowledge, attitudes, and practices among staff. Without this foundational scaffolding, it is easy for good intentions to turn into lost opportunities – so QED’s early work in Uganda involved building CLA from the ground up. It soon paid off: the Mission quickly became one of the first to formally integrate CLA processes into its operations by fostering collaboration and learning at field-based portfolio reviews (which also intentionally moved the “locus of learning” to be closer to local stakeholders) and carving out time for learning and adaptation at pause and reflect mission retreats. The 2016 CDCS was the first chance to codify CLA into a strategy that fundamentally changed the way USAID staff and partners think about their work.

The CDCS also incorporated a key mechanism for better collaboration by creating an integrated results framework that could “encourage programming focused on addressing the root causes of constraints to development in Uganda.” To operationalize this integration, the mission used an “integration spectrum” – a matrix-like tool that maps the spectrum of integration for each activity, to offer clarity and to inspire intentional discussion about the ways different activities can coordinate their efforts to align with larger development goals.  This led the Mission to the develop standard CLA language that was written into every new award to further extend the “CLA scaffolding” to USAID implementing partners and encourage collaboration in the field – where it matters most.

So where are we now? Almost five years later, as it often turns out, our efforts did not pan out as we’d hoped.

Though the CLA language helped nudge implementing partners in the right direction, we’re finding that collaboration is hard to achieve – much less sustain – without specificity and mutual incentives. A recent review of 48 USAID activity designs under the new CDCS showed that just three activities had clear and specific clauses spelling out the partners they should engage and to what end. Without this requirement, each partner received varying information about how and when to engage with others, resulting in varying levels of actual collaboration.

This one small example begs an important question: when is the work of CLA complete? The answer, it would seem, is never – even the most advanced, deeply rooted CLA cultures can miss the mark sometimes.

Ironically, the best solution is more CLA; it’s in these situations that the value of CLA itself becomes even more clear. In this case, this means considering alternative mechanisms to encourage collaboration among implementing partners – by collaborating with important stakeholders, learning from our attempts and adapting our approach.

Eight years since QED first began working in Uganda, we’ve come full circle; we’re again developing a new CDCS for the next five years. And we’re still learning and pioneering how to incorporate better CLA approaches and mechanisms. CLA is a journey, not a destination – and I’m excited to continue making mistakes, and then collaborating, learning, and adapting to find innovative new solutions.

Note: this content first appeared on the USAID Learning Lab Blog.