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Where silver bullets don’t work, learning and adaptive capacity make all the difference

Published on: 19/11/2012

Learning is not optional or just a box to tick off. Knowing what works, what doesn't, for whom and in which contexts is crucial to improve water, sanitation and hygiene interventions for services that last. But using lessons learned requires linking learning to purpose, with a joint vision and commitment towards improved services.

In his article on ‘capability traps’ Lant Pritchett (2010) states that development projects often result in failure because they import standard responses to predetermined problems and assume the capability to implement. In fact such standard responses or so-called ‘silver bullets’ do not work, while there are few mechanisms for systematic stock-taking, learning and taking corrective action.

Learning can be defined as an organised process of sharing experiences and reflecting on them to improve sector knowledge and performance (IRC, 2012). In the water and sanitation sector, engineering skills, management and planning gets the infrastructure built. However, to ensure that those pipes/ pumps/ toilets provide the levels of service intended, a much broader set of skills is needed. The capability to implement public services hinges on capacity of sector professionals to reflect upon and learn from experience and to adapt policies, regulation, systems and institutions.

In other words: the capacity of sector professionals to learn together, adjust and adapt is critical for ensuring we achieve water and sanitation for all forever.

In my previous post I mentioned, that IRC has set itself the ambitious goal of supporting ‘a sector that learns and adapts’. By 2016 we expect learning and adaptive management to be accepted as good practice and the open sharing of data, experiences and tools to be the sector norm (IRC business plan 2012-2016). In October, all staff were invited for an exchange of views about what 'learning' and 'adaptive management' mean and our role in facilitating such processes in our focus countries and international influencing work. It was a rich discussion providing food for thought and further action.

Findings and reflections

It's critical to link learning to purpose and action- improved service delivery

Among other things, the discussions illustrated that we need to link learning to purpose: The goal of learning together is continuous improvement through adaptive management. Such purposeful learning requires facilitation. IRC has an added value in these areas and should also articulate the links between our work on learning, monitoring and aid effectiveness. Other important issues around learning were context, commitment and communication: In order to facilitate continuous learning, we need to understand the context we work in, work strategically to get commitment from others in the sector and clearly communicate why continuous learning, reflective monitoring and adaptation are pivotal for sector performance.

So, What have we learned about learning and adaptive management?

Here is my selected of lessons that emerged from the discussions we had at IRC. Feel free to add and comment!

  • “Learning without adaptive management is naked”- WASH sector learning starts with reflecting on the status quo and recognizing and analysing the failures and successes. This can help trigger momentum for further learning and joint (corrective) action in the sector. Sector monitoring data and information play a crucial role in this reflection process.
  • All learning requires a willingness to learn and continuously adapt- ‘Sector learning’ starts with individuals who commit to change. Adaptive management means adapting to new information and letting go of approaches and technologies that don’t work.
  • ‘Sector learning’ : connecting individuals and organisations - Learning takes place at individual, organizational and sector level. In order to change the whole sector, we need to find ways to support learning in teams, programmes and throughout the sector (from grass-roots to national level).
  • Learning is not a linear process with a defined end- Learning is a continuous, iterative  process. Adaptive management is the recognition that change never stops. As soon as you make a decision, something will change that will require adapting, and that is part of learning.
  • Safe learning environments require good facilitation- In order to get people to embrace learning and adaptive management, you need to engage them in piloting, testing and sharing new ideas/approaches/ tools. A safe learning environment requires trust building, listening, respect for different views and knowledge. Facilitators can use a range of methods to ensure all can actively participate in discussions and make sense of data or context-specific knowledge.

It is important to recognise that there is no one-fits-all learning process or approach- The local context determines the way people learn and share. Learning facilitators like IRC can add value by supporting and promoting collaborative working and learning practices (and we do, for example in WASHCost and Triple-S or through our work with Resource Centre Networks), BUT to do so effectively we need a good understanding of the cultural context and power dynamics in the places where we work, as well as interpersonal and facilitation skills.

It’s critical that we foster capacities for continuous learning, innovation and adaptive management.  As Jim Woodhill says:"Working with complex situations is as much about attitudes and mindsets as it is to do with any ‘practical tools’. However, the capabilities for rapidly learning and adapting are of critical importance" (Woodhill 2010: 55). Moving forward in this complex sector requires a creative, responsive and adaptive outlook.  We need to clearly articulate the value of learning and adaptive management for improving sector performance, while at the same time providing practical support.  Learning is not just something 'for the hippies in the basement'!

References: IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre. 2012. WASH sector learning : continuous improvement for services that last. [online] The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre. Available at

Pritchett, Lant, Woolcock, Michael and Andrews, Matthew. 2010 ‘Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure’. December 7, 2010. Center for Global Development, Working Paper No. 234. Available below.

Woodhill, Jim, 2010. ‘Capacities for Institutional Innovation: A Complexity Perspective’. In: IDS Bulletin 41 Number 3 May 2010 pages 47-59. IDS, Brighton, UK.



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