Learning within implementing development assistance organizations: A comparative analysis of five tree-planting programs in the Nyanza Province of Kenya
Four decades of experience in development assistance led many scholars to conclude that assistance efforts were failing, in part, because implementing organizations too often merely mechanically carry out rigid project blueprints. Much of the information that is necessary to a successful assistance effort cannot be known at the outset. Organizations therefore must be able to learn during implementation. They must be able to identify and respond to social, political and economic obstacles to their efforts; to experiment with their technological interventions; and to practice how best to nurture local participation. While advocates of a "learning process approach" had made it clear that creating organizations with a capacity to learn was important, no one had undertaken an empirical study of how development assistance organizations learn in practice. This study is an attempt to begin such an investigation. Five tree-planting programs in the Nyanza Province of Kenya were analyzed to determine how these organizations learned, what they learned, and what factors interfered with the learning process. This investigation reveals that while learning is not a panacea for successful development, it is vital to success; that it is possible to create organizations with the capacity to learn and develop project plans that allow the flexibility that learning requires. This research also provides additional insights into the problems of assuring effective participation in development programs; and finally outlines an agenda for future research into learning at other organizational levels of the development assistance effort, as it is argued the real breakdown in the learning process is not with the implementing organization itself.