COVID-19 has brought many international development projects to a grinding halt. Initially, FHI 360’s USAID-funded Ma3an program was no different. Ma3an works with 33 Tunisian communities vulnerable to instability and violent extremism, implementing activities that promote social cohesion, resilience, and youth participation. When COVID-19 first emerged in Tunisia, Ma3an initially paused all of its activities with these at-risk communities. However, positive initiatives can still come out of challenging times. An unforeseen outcome for Ma3an has been that the pandemic drove a surge of Collaboration, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) in Tunisia.
CLA is a framework designed by USAID. It helps ensure that “programming is coordinated with other development actors, grounded in evidence, and adjusted as necessary to remain relevant throughout implementation” (ADS 22.214.171.124§F). In the age of coronavirus, CLA is more pertinent than ever, as it provides a framework to respond to challenging circumstances that make program adjustments necessary.
While the Ma3an program incorporated CLA activities such as After Action Reviews prior to March, there have been marked increases in CLA adoption in the past three months. Ratiba Cherif, Ma3an’s Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Director, sees the surge in CLA as something that resulted from necessity and that was not a foregone conclusion. “Confinement split up teams,” Cherif said. “Learning that was occurring naturally in informal conversations in the corridors or during lunch break was no longer happening. Regular spaces disappeared the first week of the lockdown. Staff soon realized that shared learning was not only possible, but that the virtual medium leveled the playing field for participation.”
The Ma3an MEL team did not waste a moment and jumped on the opportunity that technology offered. When confinement started, partner process interviews (PPIs) which are regular quarterly Pause & Reflect moments with civil society partners —a staple of Ma3an’s approach to CLA— were to be held face-to-face. The MEL team acted swiftly to move the format to Microsoft Teams, not second-guessing itself or losing precious time. The virtual PPIs proved to be as successful—if not more successful—than the in-person PPIs because, with the lack of distraction, the facilitator paid special attention to giving all partner staff members an equal opportunity to speak.
Indeed, according to Ma3an’s Research and Learning Officer Tarek Jalleb, stakeholder ownership for CLA has increased since the pandemic began. “We’re seeing that our partners and volunteers are adapting CLA approaches in response to COVID”, said Jalleb when discussing CLA in internal Ma3an review meetings.
The team also bumped up the monthly Let’s Talk Ma3an sessions for staff to occur weekly. Playing on the word “Ma3an”—which means “together”—these brownbag sessions create spaces for staff and partners to talk to each other, share ideas, and circulate feedback. As pause & reflect moments, they allow for intentional, structured thinking and learning amongst Ma3an staff and partners. “With lockdown, there was space at last,” explains Cherif. “Before, when we were in the thick of things, it was not easy to find the time for the teams to all be available in the office to conduct CLA activities.” Now, she says, as Ma3an halted its activities and staff are in confinement, they are available for those reflections.
Her colleague and MEL Manager Zouhair Bouallagui stresses the importance of reflection and discussion to trigger ideas and action. “During the first online PPI, very early on in the lockdown period, we asked partners ‘what activities can/will you run during this COVID period?’ At that time, none of the Ma3an partners mentioned any planned activities. It was not until the following week, when virtually all partners reported back that they had new interventions. Asking the question spurred partners to realize that activities did not need to stop and that engagement through virtual platforms—platforms that were assumed to be too difficult for local communities—could yield rich insights and results.
Ma3an’s local partners were able to quickly adapt to offer virtual learning opportunities to youth. For example, the partner in Kairouan North conducted individual phone interviews with Ma3an youth beneficiaries during the confinement. They found that youth were eager to pursue community activities despite the challenges. Similarly, two other partners administered online surveys to youth. One of these highlighted the value of this learning activity: “[It was] a way for us to deduce a strategy for forthcoming [COVID-19] activities.” For this partner, the assessment demonstrated that mental health was of high importance to the youth, and the organization prioritized it accordingly. Aymen Bouaben, Ma3an’s Communications Manager, remarked that “We were surprised to see that many partners were aptly harnessing technology. Using whatever they could, Zoom, Facebook Live or Messenger with youth. I don’t think they would have learned that had we not done the PPIs virtually.”
For the Ma3an MEL team, the triple-loop conclusions are clear:
1. Creating space for structured reflection adds value above and beyond what could be gleaned from organic learning alone. In times of widespread disruption, CLA achieves greater mileage by being intentional.
2. Enabling conditions buoy CLA adoption during periods of disruption. “I’ve seen a real evolution in the candidness, the sharing, the depth and nuances of information that partners report,” says Cherif. “The CLA and evaluative thinking during this pandemic is a product of the foundation we put in place: the existing network of partners, the culture of trust and openness.”
3. Deliberate, structured CLA can stimulate agency. “The fact that we did the PPIs so early after the confinement orders gave a head start to the partners,” says Cherif. “It triggered ideas of other activities they could do with youth.”
The Ma3an team continues to collect new data to build the evidence base for CLA (EB4CLA). An informal survey administered in May will help the team understand how Ma3an’s processes and capacity-building contributed to the community’s COVID-19 response. In another bespoke study, the team is quantitatively mapping COVID-19 youth actions across the country. We have found that Ma3an youth are leveraging connections and community networks established through Ma3an to train and sensitize communities to social distancing, and applying their skills to work with COVID-19 crisis units in their communities.
Thirty-four years ago, M.F. Weiner famously quipped don’t waste a crisis. His argument was that disruptive moments can be watersheds for change. We do not know yet which adaptions will become permanent fixtures of development after lockdown is lifted, but we do know that this crisis has broadened the audience for CLA and made believers out of folks who previously saw their priorities elsewhere. Let’s all work to keep the CLA momentum going post-pandemic.