Are we Really Learning? Making Grant-Making Practices more Conducive to Grantee Learning

This is an interesting question and from my perspective it needs to integrate three different domains or peculiarities. The first of course is related to the field of social accountability, the second to the issue of learning and then that of funders and their priorities. I have been a grounded practitioner for over 25 years and will be making my observations from that vantage point. I bring the perspective of a grantee exposed to the vagaries of shifting donor priorities and a southern practitioner balancing between global evidence reviews, meta-analysis and best practice and community reality and personal insight derived from practice.
Social accountability is a field which is becoming popular. As it becomes popular the number of players involved in the implementation field is increasing. The ‘dejure’ implementor is often a large NGO ( sometimes an INGO bringing in international expertise) and even the Government ( at least in India), then there are one or two layers of subcontracted ‘defacto’ implementer organisations and finally the community leaders, the citizens who we expect are at the cutting edge of the negotiation process.
If we now move to the field of learning, I am not exactly sure who is ‘we’ when we say “are we really learning?” If we look at the second proposition – making grant-making practices conducive to grantee learning – the focus moves to the grantee. The grantee again is a many layered institution with desk based managers, field supervisors and field facilitators who work with the community – who strictly speaking doesn’t form part of the ‘grantee’ organogram. In such situations most of the learning, or should I say capacity building moves from the top down. Formal knowledge production and dissemination mechanisms (formal being what is accepted as rigorous and ‘scientific’ by the grant-making community) are specialised functions requiring experts who can produce ‘review of literature’ and ‘summary of evidence’ which is accessible to those who are in certain places and with access to certain languages and technologies.
However social accountability is a dynamic new field which entails understanding and negotiating power relationships at the community level. Many among the poor and marginalised intuitively navigate these complex fields as a matter of daily survival. Social accountability processes provide a somewhat formal framework for these negotiations in a structured manner. There are many innovations that take place at this cutting edge of practice, there can be many lessons to be learned, but the challenge is how do we do so? Many innovative community leaders and facilitators and excellent speakers but very reluctant to write down their experiences. Often they are the most conversant in a language which has little international resonance. Finally there is also the challenge of getting such experiences recognised as credible ‘knowledge’ in the absence of comparison groups and structured information gathering and analysis by ‘experts’.
When we refer to the ‘grantee learning’ do we mean learning by the learning of the leadership of the grantee organisation who can synthesise the ‘state of the art’ knowledge for effective application downstream through elaborate logic models, or do refer to the ability of grantee organisations to analyse the results of their own experience into paper in peer reviewed journals. I wonder whether the creation of a lower level (closest to the community) learning loop is a high priority for many higher level (national or International NGOs) organisations. I am possibly sounding cynical but that is the result of years of closely observing donor – grantee – community relationship in which top down capacity building and extractive learning processes do not sufficiently enrich the bottom of the pyramid.
COPASAH is a Community of Practitioners on Accountability and Social Action in Health( , and among its members are those who working closely with communities building capacity and voice to engage assertively with health systems. One of the issues which we have been trying to stimulate a process of learning and sharing that builds upon contextually relevant grounded experience. I will briefly summarise some of the steps that we have taken and some challenges that continue.
Face to face meeting, talking and sharing are powerful ways of learning, especially for those who share a language and are not the most adept at manipulating the written word. However distances and even the diversity of languages within a country poses challenge. We started using face to face meeting along with internet based communication methods like listserv and web platforms for facilitated thematic discussions among practitioners, much like this platform itself. In India we have started a process of facilitated learning exchanges in which a group of practitioners visit each other’s work areas for a field visit based learning interaction. We have conducted eight such events in the last year and a half and have reached out to over a hundred and fifty practitioners who are now part of a group that communicates more actively with each other over the internet. We are encouraging practitioners to tell their stories through pictures and the current (10th edition) of the COPASAH newsletter ( is exclusively based on such photo-stories. Each of these processes requires patient persuasion but we feel that this encouragement is necessary to provide opportunity for grassroots based knowledge to enter some kind formal knowledge space. We are currently trying to develop a multi-lingual communication platform, which is not based on machine translations, and will allow people across different language competencies to communicate with each other in the South Asian region.
As we are moving ahead with this process, because of our conviction, we are also facing some challenges, both anticipated and unanticipated. The first challenge is to stimulate what we are calling the ‘story telling’ process where grassroots practitioners are encouraged to put out their stories in written, oral or pictoral form. This requires much more persuasion than we imagined. The process of discussing the stories or case studies requires courage from the practitioners who open their field area to enquiry during the facilitated learning exchange (FLE) process. We have been humbled by the openness of practitioners to feedback during these FLE visits. The entire process requires much more facilitation and persistent encouragement than we had initially anticipated. Grassroots practitioner are far less open in their communication on ICT platforms than we anticipated considering the rapid penetration of internet and mobile telephony in a place like India. At another end we are struggling with the challenge of finding ways in which we can create some ‘credible knowledge’ from such community based practices. For example will photo-stories and case-studies in internet based newsletters considered valid evidence in a field which reifies the expert led randomised control trial?
Here I would like to come to the field of grant-making and address what I think are some of its current anxieties. Globalisation of development aspirations through processes like the MDGs (and proposed SDGs’) have been an excellent means to try to reduce global disparities and aim at some common aspiration for peoples across different realities. However it has also brought with it the anxiety of scalability and sustainability which seem to be at the core of all grantmaking concerns. Everyone is keen to see demonstrated results within reasonably short timeframes of solutions which can be upscaled. This approach necessarily favours groups with the demonstrated capacity to conduct intervention research and publish them in journals. The emphasis is on finding that ‘intervention’ which works across different contexts and I fear different social accountability ‘tools’ are often viewed in that manner. However social accountability processes fundamentally call for shift in the locus of power from state ‘absolutism’ to shared control. It is fundamentally a political process which includes a complex set of social interactions taking place within a political context, some of which is more long standing but some which can change in the presence or absence of one powerful individual. While there are some predictabilities in the overall process, there are many uncertainities as well. My question for donors is whether they are willing to invest in a longer term learning cycle because there is no certainty that long standing power relations between providers and citizens can be substantively changed within a three year project cycle. And then what do we know about the continuity of this process? Often sustainability is assumed to be a steady state output/outcome of a development intervention, but my engagement with communities and groups for long years has taught me that the very essence of society is change. A successful intervention is one which introduces a social process which keeps adapting to change in a way in which the core values introduced by the intervention abide. This is neither easy nor impossible, but requires careful observation and probably continued tending to guard against dissipation. Are grant-makers willing to invest in these longer term maintenance and learning functions?
One way that we as CHSJ have tried to continue this long term learning function has been through maintaining relationships and continuing collaborations with our partners. This is possible because we are a country based resource organisation with a pool of partners with whom we have multi-dimensional and long term relationships. It may have been difficult if we were a ‘prime’ in a large grant working many ‘subs’idiary implementers.
I would like to close my submission with a few suggestions for grant-makers and the larger ‘grantees’ and that is to invest in developing a learning community.

  • Theory driven implementation models with ongoing review which includes implementors across the chain – grassroots implementor to project manager
  • Multiple language cross contextual communication platforms; using ICT platforms but be cognizant of existing digital divides
  • Capacity building for grassroots practitioners for developing and analysing their own stories/case-studies, the stories should also reflect upon the programme theory and changes/lessons drawn during implementation.
  • Praxis based learning opportunities for practitioners; opportunity for interaction between grassroots practitioners, project managers and academics in a spirit of mutual learning.
  • Building long term in country, regional and global relationships/alliances among implementers at different levels which link learning with advocacy since social accountability is fundamentally a form of advocacy action. Implementers who do not have a core interest in the advocacy action will not drive the process with ‘passion’ which is a hallmark of political change processes.
    Much of what I am suggesting will lead field building but may not be possible through individual situation specific grants. However since this is a platform looking for creative solutions I don’t think it is inappropriate. I look forward to your feedback,
    With best wishes,

Dr. Abhijit Das

Global Convener – COPASAH

Director – Centre for Health and Social Justice


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