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Has The Action Learning Approach To Development Come Into Its Own?

Sakshi Saini, Asst. Program Manager, writes about PRIA’s experience in establishing and supporting the Rapid Action Learning Unit (RALU) in Andhra Pradesh, which shows the action-learning approach to development is becoming a reality, and RALU is an experiment worth replicating in all sectors and states.

In India, hundreds of centrally or state sponsored development programmes are born and die periodically. Billions of rupees are spent through these development schemes, but they remain inefficient and ineffective. What do we learn from such schemes and programmes? Do we systematically apply any learning in shaping content and methods of implementation? And where are the people in all these programmes? A much-desired learning approach, where people’s experiences and diverse local experiences are continuously analysed to improve implementation actions and/or the guidelines of development schemes, is sorely lacking. Until the proposition in Swachch Bharat Mission (SBM) guidelines to constitute Rapid Action Learning Units (RALUs) in all states and all districts. This proposition came as a pleasant surprise to supporters of the action-learning approach to development. 

RALUs as institutional mechanisms aim to promote and sustain processes of learning that continuously identify successful and unsuccessful elements of SBM. The initiative aspires to identify, study and analyse ‘what worked’, ‘what didn’t’ and ‘what needs to be improved and how’ at the grassroots and institutional levels. As per the guidelines, RALUs are also required to evaluate the impact of SBM interventions, identify good practices that can be used for scaling up, find and critically assess problematic areas and suggest innovative options for improved implementation. It is expected that SBM will, in-time, use these learnings to improve the implementation of the programme and make it more effective.
RALU is a big first step. It offers a great opportunity and shows acceptance of government to learn from the practical experiences of the community and its own local officials in implementing a large-scale programme such as SBM. But there are practical challenges due to ‘time-tested’ bureaucratic practices and attitudes. Traditionally, those on top, due to their ‘position’, are supposed to know everything. Majority of people in power thus regard themselves as the best teacher for ‘student’ citizenry. Accordingly, there is always reluctance in the bureaucratic system to learn from ‘not so well educated’ communities and local actors/officials. The government system is neither accustomed to learn from below nor does it have the practice of generating and using such learnings. This poses a serious challenge in actualising the vision with which RALU has been ideated and formulated. The other related challenge, again due to administrative tradition of sending only evaluation teams in the field, is that RALU could be confused as a mere evaluating mechanism of the government. This may in turn inhibit the participation of local officials in the entire process.

In spite of these challenges, the SBM Directorate in Andhra Pradesh (SBM-AP) and the Government of Andhra Pradesh have taken the bold step of constituting an independent RALU at the state level (RALU-AP). WaterAid agreed to provide financial and technical support and PRIA agreed to facilitate the process of action-learning by linking grassroots learning and participatory research with SBM to catalyse in-time rapid actions to support and/or correct the process and path of SBM implementation.

Taking into account the given mandate of RALU and possible challenges in operationalizing systematic bilateral learning (bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom), PRIA intensively deliberated upon possible operational structures before proposing one which Government of Andhra Pradesh and WaterAid agreed to. RALUs are to be constituted and operated by the government. To achieve this in the long term, in operational terms currently RALU-AP is operated by PRIA but with close guidance and support from the government. A minimum common understanding about the structure and functions of RALU-AP was evolved. To formalize the common understanding on operational structure and functions of RALU-AP and roles and responsibilities of different agencies, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between SBM-AP, Department of Panchayat and Rural Water Supply, WaterAid and PRIA was signed in December 2015. As per this, RALU-AP focuses on: (i) identifying, analysing and documenting good and bad practices in sanitation, (ii) generating systematic knowledge on critical issues through participatory research to provide answers to important questions, (iii) bringing the learning to SBM to suggest appropriate improvements in policies, practice and systems of SBM, and (iv) facilitating an effective and rapid flow of learning and action exchanges between demand and supply systems through citizen-centric feedback and communications.

Government of Andhra Pradesh agreed to legitimize the functioning of RALU-AP by ensuring all possible support from its officials at different levels. It informed all local officials of SBM to provide logistic and intellectual support to the RALU-AP team in undertaking the learning processes in the field. It also agreed to constitute an Advisory Committee comprising heads of related departments in the state government (such as education, health, etc), SBM-AP, WaterAid and PRIA as members. While Director SBM is member-convenor, PRIA is the member-secretary of this committee. The Advisory Committee is chaired by Principal Secretary, Department of Panchayati Raj and Rural Water Supply. It is expected that the committee will periodically meet to review the functioning and findings of RALU and take appropriate actions on issues emerging from the field to improve implementation of SBM in the state. Thus, the Advisory Committee is expected to play a very important role not only in making demand-supply relations efficient but also in institutionalizing the operation of RALU in the government system over a period of time.

WaterAid agreed to provide financial support to PRIA for human resources and fieldwork. PRIA manages and operationalizes the functioning of RALU-AP through its human and intellectual resources. Accordingly, a team of four core professionals in an independent office in Hyderabad generate, systematize and disseminate learnings from the field. This team is continuously supported and guided by a team of senior professionals from PRIA’s national team in Delhi.

RALU-AP is functionally only five months old. While it is too early to comprehensively evaluate the efficacy of RALU vis-à-vis its mandate, overall it is showing quite encouraging results. So far, more than 30 innovations have been identified, analysed, documented and disseminated by the RALU team. Experiences and emerging trends from the field are continuously shared with SBM-AP, which has begun to use these learning judiciously to make corrections wherever possible. RALU is facilitating learning, for government bodies as well as for NGOs and the community. It doesn’t promote a unilateral relationship of teaching. Rather, it focuses on providing an enabling environment of learning and support. Unlike a traditional student-teacher relationship, RALU-AP focuses on horizontal as well as vertical spread of knowledge. Creating common platforms as well as minimum common understanding on issues is one of the most important tasks being undertaken. Case studies are documented through regular, continuous visits to gram panchayats and interaction with local communities and officials. These visits also generate expectations from the community to take up and resolve the issues reported, and often RALU is seen as an opportunity to facilitate getting support from SBM. RALU has thus begun to emerge as an interface institution between government and community to bring an understanding with each other.

RALU-AP itself is learning to function in an efficient manner to overcome the challenges in documenting community processes that have helped achieve Open Defecation Free (ODF) status through SBM activities. There is the possibility of personal bias impacting process documentation. While documenting these innovations, various issues are identified pertaining to the problem of sanitation. RALU has started exploring collaborations with local educational institutions, who in turn could take up participatory research on these identified issues. These institutions could also support critical analysis of the system and processes. Conducting participatory research and analysis will help in finding answers to various unresolved questions and emerging trends. It could be helpful in identifying crucial factors behind the success and failure of different ongoing initiatives and incentives under SBM. Participatory research will bring attention to factors which lead to behavioural change in communities, such as incentives, self-driven sanitation agenda, toilet subsidies, etc.

RALU being a multi-stakeholder program is learning to negotiate so that it does not deviate from its objective due to the involvement and demands of various parties. The fear of co-option remains, which is being overcome by having clarity in terms of roles and responsibilities of the unit. Sometimes, RALU is misunderstood as an evaluating agency, and government officials fear critical evaluation. This makes them sceptical in sharing information. Taking them into confidence by clarifying the role of RALU has helped in building trust. SBM officials who see the benefits in supporting RALU are advocating it as a learning unit.

Another important role of RALU-AP is to build capacity of local educational institutions. These educational institutions will generate real-time data to gauge the strides made on the issue of sanitation in a district and provide to-the-point information on problems in programme delivery. This, in turn, will become a source of information for RALU to understand the development and performance of a district in achieving the goal of sanitation for all. Feedback on the implementation process by primary stakeholders is different from administrative monitoring of the programme. Citizen feedback helps in assessing the progress of service delivery in a participatory manner.

Field visits not only aim to interact with the community to collect their lived experiences and local knowledge but are also seen as informal opportunities to raise awareness on the issue of sanitation, talk about SBM and motivate the community. Often communities themselves have asked for information on successful examples, or have given details of progress in neighbouring gram panchayats. Regional consultations are providing a platform for local leaders to get recognized, which in itself is a source of motivation for others to act in a similar direction. This gives a sense of ownership to the community to take the programme forward. And it is not just the community; even officials are more active in taking the programme forward.

The action-learning documentation and research has just started and many aspects of RALU’s mandate are still to be actualized. Yet, expectations are already increasing and so are the responsibilities. In the first RALU Advisory Committee meeting held in March 2016, the member officials from education and health departments were so impressed with the usefulness of the data and findings presented that they asked whether RALU-AP could generate similar data for schemes under their departments. This is a very tricky demand but is worth looking at seeing the goodwill RALU-AP has generated in such a short time. Bringing forth issues, and facilitating acceptance and support from multiple stakeholders to act upon these issues requires intensive human resource investments, which are worth investing in. All state governments could seriously think of setting up RALU under SBM and similar institutional structures for other sectoral initiatives to improve programme effectiveness through action learning.

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