If the Journey to Self-Reliance is to Succeed, We Need to Strengthen Local Capacity to Collaborate, Learn, and Adapt

This blog was originally published on the USAID Learning Lab website.

USAID’s approach to development – the Journey to Self-Reliance – focuses our collective efforts on building the capacity and commitment of partner countries to lead their own development. As Administrator Mark Green has said, “the purpose of foreign assistance should be ending its need to exist.”

One critical aspect of self-reliance is a country’s capacity to plan, finance, and implement solutions to local development challenges. Results of a recent systematic review of empirical research on organizational resilience reveal that we need to think holistically about capacity and ensure that we include the ability to collaborate, learn, and adapt in how we define capacity. Why? Because collaborating, learning, and adapting practices increase organizational resilience, and organizational resilience improves development outcomes.

What is organizational resilience and why does it matter?

In order for institutions and communities to progress on their journey to self-reliance, they need – among other things – to effectively manage acute shocks (such as natural disasters or political upheaval) and chronic stressors (such as poor health and education outcomes).

This critical ability is known as organizational resilience; resilient organizations are able to “continue to meet objectives in the face of challenges.” They are able not only to withstand those acute shocks and chronic stresses but “also [to] adapt and transform” as a result of working through them.1 Put simply, organizational resilience matters because it means institutions, communities and local systems can overcome challenging circumstances and come out stronger on the other side.

So, what enables organizational resilience?

A recent systematic review of empirical literature2 on organizational resilience – how it is defined and what enables primarily within the health sector – provides some answers. It turns out that many of these important enabling factors can be found in the Collaborating, Learning & Adapting (CLA) framework. The authors are likely unfamiliar with USAID’s CLA framework, but the connections to CLA concepts and practices are clear:

  • Information management: The authors note that “organizational resilience is widely identified as being dependent on how information is managed and used.”3 Within the CLA framework, this appears under the Processes component (see Knowledge Management and Institutional Memory). In addition, the use of information is a common theme across the Learning and Adapting components in the framework.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Information
Management
Knowledge
Management,
Institutional Memory
During the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, information flows between the security services and state ministry of health strengthened health system resilience.4
  • Social networks and collaboration: Several studies led authors to conclude that “how well organizations establish and leverage their networks determines the extent to which they are resilient to everyday challenges and acute shocks.” In addition, “collaboration among organizations in a networked environment also expands [organizations’] resources…and [improves their] ability to learn and capacity to respond.”5 The CLA framework highlights these same concepts, particularly under the Relationships and Networks subcomponent.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Social networks and collaborationCollaborating,
Relationships and
Networks
Thai organizations that strategically collaborated with others were able to mobilize additional resources that were crucial to responding effectively to flooding. In fact, organizations in rural areas with stronger social networks were better able to respond to floods than those in urban and suburban settings.6
  • Organizational culture: Interestingly, learning-oriented cultures result in greater organizational resilience. Resilient organizations “consider challenges as learning opportunities,” “nurture creativity by providing time and resources for experimentation,” and have a “tolerance for failure” and “an atmosphere in which employees [feel] safe to share new ideas.”7 Within the CLA framework, this sense of openness to new ideas and actions falls under the Culture component.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Organizational CultureCulture, Openness,
Continuous Learning & Improvement
In Jordan, insurance companies that did not intentionally learn from past experience experienced weakened organizational resilience, which limited their ability to respond to ongoing challenges, including competition from other companies, loss of customers, and financial losses.8
  • Preparedness and planning: Authors note that “one of the strategies used by organizations to prepare for crises or disasters is by going through scenario exercises.” Collaborative planning, including scenario planning, is one of the approaches promoted by the CLA framework under the Learning component.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Preparedness and planningScenario PlanningIn Lusophone African countries, researchers found that health systems would benefit from training health professionals to use scenario drills to prepare for possible disease outbreak.9
  • Governance process: The review found that certain governance practices, including decentralized decision-making, were critical to organizational resilience. Specifically, “resilient organizations adopted a form of governance characterized by distributed control, rather than top down hierarchy.” This enabled local actors to have the “flexibility that facilitated timely responses to everyday challenges.” This finding relates most closely to the Decision-Making subcomponent in the CLA framework, which recommends  that autonomy to make decisions rest with those closest to the work.
Enabling Factor for Organizational ResilienceLink to the CLA FrameworkExample from Study
Governance processDecision-MakingIn Ivory Coast, decentralized decision-making at the state level enabled transport of pharmaceutical drugs to local drug stores during the civil war, resulting in reduced disruption of the drug supply.10

This research aligns with findings from our efforts to build the evidence base for CLA. The implication is that when organizations incorporate CLA practices and approaches, they can build their resilience to deal with challenges and transform for the better. If CLA practices contribute to organizational resilience, then we shouldn’t solely focus on integrating CLA practices within USAID and its traditional implementing partners. Rather, strengthening capacity must include partner country capacity to more effectively and intentionally collaborate, learn, and adapt. Stay tuned for follow-up posts in response to this blog from USAID colleagues giving examples of how we can do this in practice.


References
1. Barasa, Mbau, Gilson, 2018, p. 1
2. Reviewing only empirical research means the authors left out studies that were based on theory or belief and only included studies that are “based on observed and measured phenomena and derive knowledge from actual experience.” They also included research from a variety of country contexts, from Scandinavia to Sub-Saharan Africa. The authors note that this is the first review of its kind of organizational resilience in health systems strengthening. In total, they reviewed 34 papers (winnowing down from thousands) that met their criteria to answer the question: What enables organizational resilience?
3. Barasa, Mbau, Gilson, 2018, p. 7.
4. Ager et al, 2015
5. Barasa, Mbau, Gilson, 2018, p. 10
6. Andrew et al, 2016
7. Barasa, Mbau, Gilson, 2018, p. 9
8. Sawalha, 2015
9. Lapao et al, 2015
10. Lembani et al, 2014

About the Author

Monalisa Salib is the Deputy Chief of Party for the USAID LEARN contract at Dexis Consulting Group. The contract is a multi-year effort to improve how USAID designs, learns from, and improves its development assistance. Ms. Salib has 14 years of experience in international development and has facilitated organizational change efforts within USAID and local organizations throughout the world in support of achieving better governance, education, and economic development outcomes.  

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