After more than a decade of managing, advising and facilitating programmes working in complex situations, we (Phil and Mariam) started Learning Loop. We feel privileged to have lived and worked closely with those who struggle with injustice in the South as well as with organisational directors in the North. We have worked with indigenous land rights protesters, with mother tongue teachers, with undersecretaries of state for education, with programme directors of NGOs, and with funding managers from donor organisations. This helps us to understand a wide range of dynamics that take place in the context of social change. Supporting learning processes and being cultural translators between different worlds has become central to what we do.
When we worked among the Bunong people, an indigenous minority group in Cambodia, the situations were complex— there were changing actors, unpredictable political dynamics, diverse cultural perspectives, and major changes in the environment. We realised that we needed to learn more deeply and quickly. We struggled to communicate about the complexities of change that the indigenous minorities were facing. The programme was doing so much more than ever ended up in reports, and we needed to be more adaptive, which made us feel frustrated with the log frame approach. Phil went on to write his masters thesis about the challenges of interaction between indigenous minorities and modern NGO practice.
Phil's studies inspired us to start up an action research project to explore these complex issues further. We discovered helpful learning processes which became key to adaptive management in our context. We found that Outcome Mapping gave space for staff to work with complex situations in a dynamic, relational and actor-focused way; it enhanced learning, enabled adaptation, and changed communication. We built on this experience to later manage/advise a larger programme of 60 staff, working among several indigenous minority groups in Northeastern Cambodia. A couple years into the programme, when we did a monitoring and evaluation review, the staff said, “We can’t take away Outcome Mapping; this is how we know what to do next.” Since this experience we have been convinced of the value of Outcome Mapping, Most Significant Change Stories, and Outcome Harvesting. The use of the tools created a sense of ownership among all staff as well as the “target communities”.
For us, the tools created structure and clarity about outcomes and perspectives within and across teams, providing evidence for adjusting activities along the way. Many times we learnt that the staff’s gentle relationships with community members encouraging reflection on culture motivated agency towards forest protection, learning literacy skills, and participating in commune affairs! Finding various forms to listen to people’s perspectives and have dialogue were essential.
“We can’t take away Outcome Mapping; this is how we know what to do next.”
During and after our work among the indigenous people in Cambodia, various projects and organisations asked us to support them in designing and reviewing their learning systems. Since moving to Sweden in 2015, Mariam has completed a masters programme in pedagogy, which helped her to weave together theory with her own experiences. She researched what took place in organisations when they use learning approaches appropriate for complex situations. Although tools on their own are not a guarantee of a more people-focused and outcome-focused way of working, she found that they do help in shaping the way programme staff work more inclusively, providing important support to conversation and communities of practice. For those interested in her results, read her thesis here. We believe a combination of new pedagogical perspectives and good tools can be of great help to organisations working with complex social change!
Mariam: Although I am Swedish, I have lived most of my life in Asia, mainly in Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Cambodia. After a few years of teaching primary school, I spent over a decade in leadership roles for programmes engaged in mother-tongue based multilingual education and community development among indigenous people in northeastern Cambodia. My masters thesis in pedagogy explored the cultural changes in other organisations throughout Asia, as they attempted to shift to more adaptive management practices. Bridging theory and practice in meaningful ways for local actors is something I am passionate about, merging pedagogy and development practice.
Mariam Smith CV
Phil: I currently work full time for the Swedish Mission Council as advisor for organisational development and evaluation, drawing on my 12 years working in Nigeria and Cambodia to wrestle with how the funding chain can better support the inherent complexity of social change. I am also an advisor for Learning Loop, which mostly involves creative coffee meetings with Mariam and the occasional workshop together. I have a masters in International Development and Management from Lund university, have published several articles on development issues in indigenous contexts, and have worked regionally throughout Asia in program design, monitoring and evaluation, and organisational development.
Phil Smith CV