Reflections from the TALEARN Workshop, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Nov 11-13, 2015

By Charlotte Ørnemark, GPSA Knowledge & Learning Team

Here’s the backdrop: We are in Rio de Janeiro. Around 70 people representing a diverse mix of researchers, social activists, consultants, NGOs and funders – all committed to the cause of responsive and accountable governance – stand in a big circle in a bright room overlooking the sea.

As instructed, we take a deep breath. It’s the first of many. Looking around the room, a part of me is acutely aware of the fact that this is not your regular type of workshop. We are easily around 20-25 nationalities in the room, all working in very different environments. It is quite unique. So is the highly interactive style of facilitation which quickly puts us all way out of our comfort zones by asking us to declare up front what our imagined super-hero powers would be, illustrated by a super-hero pose... Flippant as this may seem, the facilitator knows what he is doing to make us let our guards down.

What we have in common is that we are all here to learn about how to navigate the complexities of making public sector governance accountable to those it is meant to serve. We also seem to share a passion and a sense of urgency for finding out what makes change happen at scale in this area.

Some of us, it seems, have the sneaky suspicion that a cookie cutter approach of combining transparency and the availability of data (fundamental as it is!) with citizen feedback alone, will not fully do the trick of ensuring transformative change after a decade or so of trying that route. Most of us are involved in or directly supporting processes of (hopefully) social change or scalable governance reform, where a multitude of state and non-state actors with competing interests come together around some aligned incentives – in a particular context, at a particular moment in history – despite shifting and often political agendas. Phew! This is not easy stuff.  And here we are, wondering why we can’t figure all this out on our own. Another deep breath.

But the TALEARN community has – as far as I understand – also emerged out of the need to not just learn faster, better, and be more strategic in what we do, but also to seize the opportunity to push for a common learning agenda in this sector. In brief, if we want to do development differently (which a lot of thinking has gone into lately), we will have to adopt a different approach to knowledge and learning as well; one which allows us to be more agile and adaptable to achieve results. 

The truth of the matter is we’ve come a long way.

This is the third time T/AI is convening its TALEARN community to physically meet and exchange ideas in an annual workshop to leverage learning.  In the lead-up for the Rio workshop, T/AI helped summarize and articulate some of these thoughts. Others represented at the workshop, such as Global Integrity, have explored different dimensions of simple and adaptive learning as a driving force to open governance. All this is highly relevant to us at the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) at the World Bank. Not only do we try to live by these principles by actually investing in the learning journeys of our grantees world-wide and support collaboration with their in-country government counterparts via the World Bank country offices. We also try to apply in practice what has been called ‘eco-systems of accountability’, where a whole range of actors spanning from national governments through to organized civil society and individual citizens work on solving specific public sectors problems together.

Some early results are encouraging, and the discourse and political will is gradually gaining traction with the need to re-think how diverse state and non-state actors pull together behind the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), led by continuous citizen feedback. Now is the time to ride on that wave of goodwill. We cannot lose momentum.

This is why this T/AI workshop in Rio feels important and timely.

Workshop discussions reflect how the development pendulum is constantly swinging between technocratic and political approaches to achieve social change, and various views of what is the best way forward depend very much on our respective realities and pre-conceived mental models. At times, tendencies to fall into the trap of ‘opposing views’ seems to hinder us from trying to frame what we mean by learning-oriented adaptation as a common path ahead towards governance accountability. My take-away lesson is that ‘unlearning’ seems to be as important as ‘learning’ to truly change the way we collaborate in the face of complexity.

At the same time, research, evidence and stories (including very practical examples from front-line activists from a number of countries) illustrate how learning-oriented adaptation – when we allow for it to happen – can help guide the choice of interventions to achieve social accountability in a locally embedded context, in a particular sector or for a specific public service. Examples range from health, education, and water sectors while some cross-cutting issues looks at the role of funding agencies, and how we learn as organizations and movements.

Having heard many differing views and different examples being presented over such a short and intense time-period, I leave Rio feeling enriched. The next challenge, however, will be to look more at where our respective interests in adaptive learning converge, and how if/how it actually can contribute to governance that is responsive and accountable to citizens.   

It’s a learning journey that seems both daunting and exciting. I take a deep breath, and get ready for the ride.