Five ways to boost learning in shelter work

Couple building shelter
Copyright: G.M.B. Akash/Panos

Speed read

  • Sector realises value of sharing information more than value of managing knowledge
  • Organisations and funders need to support a learning culture
  • New initiatives including a user-moderated online library can support this

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Humanitarian work needs lasting investment in systems to manage knowledge, not just information, says Tom Corsellis.

In shelter, as in other humanitarian operations, innovation and technical knowledge save lives — from implementing building regulations in the Philippines to knowing how to use bamboo to increase the durability of buildings in Liberia. Decades of experience of what works and what doesn’t is recorded in numerous languages as guidance, case studies, training materials and project proposals, reports and evaluations.

The problem is that minimal investment has gone into collective knowledge management, to benefit from this experience. The humanitarian sector has understood the value of managing information — developing systems to share meeting minutes, assessment data and maps — but it is just waking up to the value of managing knowledge. Sharing information supports operations and fundraising, not learning.

“Learning is often limited to random selections of knowledge saved in the Dropboxes or servers of agencies.”

Tom Corsellis, Shelter Centre

Most documents posted by information managers are high-level policy texts almost always written in English, excluding many practitioners around the world. As posting can be perceived as endorsement, there is also a need for a moderator, adding demands on limited resources. Although large agencies maintain online libraries, they mainly host only their own publications.

When combined with the typically high turnover of humanitarian staff, this lack of a live institutional memory is crippling, dangerous and inefficient.

It means that learning is often limited to random selections of knowledge saved in the Dropboxes or servers of agencies. In hazard-prone countries, even agencies with a continuous presence sometimes have difficulty rediscovering what they did previously. Imagine finding books without Amazon or videos without YouTube — during operations, search engines are often the main routes to knowledge. This needs to change.

Improving knowledge management

There are efforts being made to facilitate learning. In Pakistan, for example, the International Organization for Migration is working with the non-profit business Arup International Development to collate knowledge gathered over years of reconstruction after flooding that has impacted tens of millions. The aim is to create a toolkit for the next inevitable event.

Several pioneering new resources — from PreventionWeb and the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center to watersanitationhygiene.org — integrate knowledge with discussion forums, updates and events listings. In addition, new approaches to humanitarian open data, led by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), could integrate knowledge and information across platforms globally, but also regionally and nationally.

Another example of capturing best practice to promote innovation and effectiveness is the Shelter Library, developed by the NGO Shelter Centre, which I lead. Web traffic shows it has been accessed from over 95 per cent of countries worldwide, with peaks corresponding to the locations of new humanitarian operations. Key to its success is that it integrates functions developed together with the community it serves. This includes a regular forum that peer reviews guidance and training.

The programme that funds the library ended in 2011. Traditional donors prefer to invest in agencies such as the UN, which are then expected to maintain knowledge management resources without additional ring-fenced funding.

This funding barrier is partly responsible for the ‘pilotitis’ afflicting the sector: the inability to keep initiatives going past the pilot stage and until their impact is sustained. This creates never-ending reinvention and blocks learning — an obstacle that a new Humanitarian Library aims to overcome.

Also developed by Shelter Centre, and building on the content of the Shelter Library, this new library is designed to be a ‘living knowledge base’: crowdsourcing information and moderated by the community it serves. The low-maintenance model was developed in open dialogue with OCHA to meet its open data standards and dovetail with its information management resources. Following a search, the library suggests related content, similar to the “customers who bought this item also bought” feature on Amazon. This helps users who may not know precisely what they are looking for, or what is available.

“If spaces to share knowledge are to succeed, they need to make visible those parts, functions and perspectives of the sector that are currently invisible.”

Tom Corsellis, Shelter Centre

If spaces to share knowledge are to succeed, they need to make visible those parts, functions and perspectives of the sector that are currently invisible.

Five ways to boost learning

These initiatives aside, humanitarian knowledge is still presented on thousands of separate websites. How do fieldworkers know where to search? How should we change how knowledge is managed, so we can learn what we already know?

Firstly, we need a cultural change: the sector must recognise the value of knowledge management as it does the value of information management. Many reject the development of guidance on best practice because “no one reads them anyway” — however this might imply instead that knowledge should be presented via different access routes as well as in different formats.

Secondly, donors must support this cultural change. Non-traditional donors, such as foundations and the social responsibility budgets of corporations, should broaden revenue streams to support knowledge management across humanitarian partners and offer opportunities for expert collaboration.

Thirdly, the people and organisations behind existing and emerging resources should explore how to make them more than the sum of their parts. One option is to adopt open data and open knowledge standards to connect activities into a collective consciousness.

Fourthly, the wealth of knowledge in languages other than English should be acknowledged. A network of resources curated across regional, national and local levels should make more visible the different perspectives that each culture represents.

Lastly, knowledge should be managed through participatory approaches. Social media offer an example: they motivate individuals and organisations to share by increasing their visibility to peers, governments and donors. Traditional libraries can never attract the funding needed to capture more than a fraction of existing knowledge.

Operational tools are a case in point: they are normally the lowest priority, but must be shared so crucial groups of practitioners are not excluded from learning. Securing shelter isn’t just about technical experts — it also involves financial managers, warehouse workers and, especially, those affected by or at risk of disaster.

Tom Corsellis is the director of Shelter Centre, an NGO dedicated to supporting the global shelter and settlement community in developing and maintaining consensus resources, guidance and tools. He can be contacted at tom@sheltercentre.org or via Twitter via @sheltercentre and @HumLibrary

This article is part of our Spotlight on Shelter crisis: Rebuilding after the storm.