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Project Learning Approach

USAID's stress on learning as an critical aspect of a Mission's CDCS strategy continues in its Project Design Guidance. Learning approach at the project level is expected to help Mission employ adaptive management during project implementation. USAID also expects Missions to link project level learning approaches to broader Mission learning plans.

Starting with a project Concept Paper, project design teams are expected to describe the learning approach to be used in a project. At the CDCS level, USAID views the Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) Plan being tested by USAID/Uganda as a useful Mission-wide model. The CLA approach incorporates a range of ideas for enhancing partner collaboration; improving program information/feedback systems and the development of a culture that encourages hypothesis testing and fosters reflection and adaptation to new evidence. This approach and the Agency's overarching strategy for enhancing learning are highlighted in the kit's page on Designing a CDCS Learning Approach.

With a Mission-wide framework for learning in place, USAID anticipates that project design and management teams will find support for their efforts to incorporate evidence into project designs and develop plans for incorporating reflecting and adapting processes into the project management cycle to be used at various points throughout implementation. Suggestions along these lines are to be found in USAID's July 2012 draft Program Cycle Learning Guide. This guide, among other things, encourage project designers to incorporate into the learning sections of their project Concept Papers and PAD process that fit with their overall Mission learning and encourage:

  • Reflecting on what implementation is revealing about the causal logic embedded in the project Logical Framework, and on emergent technical learning as well as shifts in the evolving local and regional contexts and their implications;
  • Adapting work accordingly to ensure relevance and results;
  • Establishing a timeframe and processes for when and how to reflect on new learning and shifts in the local context, and
  • Instituting methods to ensure sufficient flexibility in implementing mechanisms so that emergent opportunities to collaborate strategically can be seized, additional or different learning topics can be pursued, and adaptation to shifts in game-changing trends can take place without the need for formal modification of funding mechanisms.

The project processes recommended for fostering learning in USAID's Program Cycle Learning Guide share a number of characteristics with processes already familiar to non-governmental organizations and developing countries for building deliberate learning into projects through an action research (or participatory action research) cycle. These approaches, which draw upon operations research principles assume that as implementation proceeds, the situation or status of the target population will change and those changes will create new opportunities as well as foster learning if given a chance to do so. An action research cycle, as diagramed below, actively uses routine procedures for collecting performance data to reconsider a project's design and plan. When implemented collaboratively with local partners, a model of this sort not only fosters project improvements, it also strengthens local capacity by transferring a replicable learning model to USAID's partners.