Participatory learning groups in an aid bureaucracy
This paper is part of the series Lessons for change about organisational learning, resulting from a collaboration between ActionAid, DFID, Sida and the Participation Group at the Institute of Development Studies to explore understandings of learning and to document innovative approaches. Today's development talk is full of concepts such as participation, ownership, partnership and accountability; concepts that speak above all to the complex relationships that those who work in aid bureaucracies need to manage. Yet scant opportunity exists within these settings for reflection in and on everyday working practice and its relationship with the ideals that policies profess. In this paper, we describe an experiment in creating these spaces for reflection and learning in such an organisational setting. It narrates the process of establishing and running two participatory learning groups in the Swedish official development agency, Sida: one in the Stockholm headquarters, and one in the Embassy of Sweden in Nairobi. In the work, a hybrid approach to participatory learning was evolved, taking principles from action oriented research methodologies and adapting them to the context of an aid bureaucracy. Through cycles of reflection and action over a period of close to a year, group members explored experiences and ideas, building analyses, alliances and possibilities for action through participatory interaction. Fostering subtle changes through small acts and shifts in thinking, the learning groups helped foster greater reflexivity amongst participants and, with it, a degree of engagement and awareness with the potential for changes at other scales. This paper reports on the way the process developed, and reflects on lessons learnt with potential for wider application.