ACTIONAID INTERNATIONAL KNOWLEDGE INITIATIVE
JORGE ROMANO and KATE CARROLL
The Knowledge Initiative in ActionAid International aims to support the organisation to deepen existing organizational knowledge, generate new knowledge to enable change in policy and practice , and make knowledge more available and useful to a wider range of people. More than a knowledge management or sharing brief, the Knowledge Initiative considers itself to be the basis of a south-global think tank. It aims to support poor and marginalized people to use their own knowledge as a source of power, and keep ActionAid at the cutting edge of development: thinking, challenging and providing alternative development models.
The KI principles promote linkages and connections. KI involves communities in analysis, and promotes progressive and critical thinking with a focus on alternatives and solutions, gaps and unexploited opportunities. To do this a variety of mechanisms and tools are used, including sabbaticals and fellowships, consultancy, action-research, courses, immersions and discussion forums to ensure that methodologies and ideas are developed to form the basis for new practice. The Knowledge Initiative is presently doing work on transformative social protection and redistribution as a response to the current economic crisis.
One of the key products the Knowledge Initiative will be working on are ‘qualitative scenarios’, pictures of the key issues around poverty and people’s struggles developed from interviews with key social change and development actors in different countries, such as leaders of social movements and civil society organisations, ActionAid staff, academics and journalists, and different communities of people. These will act as tools to influence and ground policy within and outside ActionAid. Another tool the Knowledge Initiative have used is the ‘critical story of change’, which seeks to give a narrative of how change happens where ActionAid is active in particular themes or issues. A perceived success story is analysed through a participatory process and provides an opportunity to explore the complexities of relationships and dynamics which come into play where ActionAid is working and contribute to change.
Information, knowledge and decision-making in ActionAid
Knowledge is a key resource in every organisation, but it is difficult to accumulate as an organisation, rather it tends to remain with the individuals working in it. While there may be information overload, and indeed, increasing information transfer, there is not much transfer of knowledge in the normal working culture of ActionAid. Knowledge is gained through analysis, it is an intellectual process which conceptualises and formalises learning, and allows for new ideas to be generated. This means that information generated through participatory processes will not be translated into new organisational knowledge without a deliberate and facilitated process.
Knowledge needs to be circulated, and new knowledge needs to be created. This means capturing institutional knowledge, mapping externally relevant knowledge, and ‘selling’ or sharing organisational knowledge. Knowledge is an intellectual activity, and as AA is an organisation of actions - the staff are activists - so a key part of this process is to change the institutional culture so that knowledge is more valued. A key step in this is looking at how knowledge helps us to understand poverty, linking it directly to the achievement of the organisation’s mission. It will be important to identify what are the key information needs, and to develop allies to get appropriate information. This involves thinking through how KI links to other established forms of information flow, such as giving feedback on national annual plans to identify areas of possible collaboration. There are challenges here regarding the time and space to listen and respond to people, within the framework of the wider organisational priorities, capacity and expertise.
Information flows depend on the model of the organisation as well as the culture. ActionAid has an international secretariat that according to its mandate, makes decisions which affect all the organization, including the national affiliates. These can participate in the different processes of decision making, but need to have the time and capacity to do so often at very short notice. Knowledge gained from grassroots experience gets weaker along the chain, and may reach regional level but not necessarily the international level. Many of the people working at international level do not have any country level experience, which creates two different types of experience and complicates communication between country programmes and international secretariat staff. With the consolidation of the confederation model the role of national affiliates in decision-making processes is increased, and this means that expansive experience on the ground will be a much stronger element of the information flows and decision making processes.
Example: Increasing participation in project management
An example of decision making in programme work leading to a process of knowledge generation and change is the transformation of the child sponsorship model in Brazil. ActionAid relies on child sponsorship for a large part of its programme funding, and also cultivates the relationships between sponsors and the sponsored children and their communities to enhance shared understanding and consciousness. Initially in one project area, ActionAid Brazil began to implement sponsorship together with rural trade unions and pastoral groups to ensure that allocation decisions and plans were made, and activities managed, locally. The process of planning and decision making resulted in some local policy advocacy work being supported to support local small-holder agriculture, which meant that the whole child sponsorship model was more political, and more accountable to the intended beneficiaries.
The experience was shared with other ActionAid Brazil staff and partners, and those who were interested in following up visited the project area to learn more, and develop this into new knowledge and approaches. The experience was also shared regionally and internationally through a centralised effort to reinvigorate child sponsorship, written up as a case study, and featured in the new ActionAid Strategy. Meanwhile, in Brazil one of the main partners involved made a video about the experience, focusing on youth participation, and shared it through their own networks.
Flows through flatter and more participatory structures:
The information and experience, based in participatory practice, was able to flow through and influence the organisation more widely because it was well linked to different areas of work. ActionAid Brazil is a relatively new country programme, established with rights and participation at the core of its beliefs and approach. Although it took time to build partnerships based on participatory approaches, trust has built up slowly and the capacity ActionAid is building is highly appreciated. This approach enabled a more participatory decision making and communications structure within the team, enabling stronger sharing and collaboration. This meant that, whereas in most countries child sponsorship information shared nationally is mainly technical in nature, in Brazil it was part of several areas of work - programming, finance, directors’ coordination and communications and fund-raising, meaning that the learning generated could become part of broader dialogues and processes.
Furthermore, ActionAid Brazil placed a lot of effort and importance on linking the national programme to international processes and participating in, or even creating, debates in the organisation. AA Brazil saw their role as ‘translators’, taking international debates or experiences and translating them to the Brazilian context, from which they could link up and create open spaces for discussion, build agendas together. This approach depended on flexibility, creativity and trust, and suffered from staff turnover where relationships are diminished. All staff attended international meetings, worked on international issues and developed their own plans in relation to international plans and strategies. This helped for the experience to influence thinking and planning more widely.