It’s 25 years since the Rwandan genocide and ensuing Great Lakes refugee emergency which led to the largest ever multi-sector evaluation of an emergency response and then to wide ranging humanitarian reform and the establishment of the IASC cluster system. Buried in the evaluation findings was a recommendation to strengthen institutional memory as too many humanitarian actors were repeating errors in their individual and collective response. Organisations set out to strengthen the institutional memory of what works and doesn’t work in the emergency nutrition sector and in the years since then, institutional memory has located in the growing knowledge management and learning (KML) discipline.
A recent rapid landscape KML mapping by N4D identified numerous organisations involved in nutrition related KML of which many are either operationally focussed capturing organisational programme learning or are non-operational and straddle the divide between research and KML. If the KML work of allied sectors such as Health, WASH, Agriculture and Social Protection are also counted, the wealth of knowledge and learning is truly phenomenal. However, it is right to ask how accessible these KML resources are to countries where knowledge and learning of what works is most needed?
Before the growth of websites and digitalised information and knowledge storage, nutrition knowledge was captured mainly through rigorously designed research studies published in peer reviewed journals with periodic state of the art reviews on specific thematic areas. Now, partly because of the volume and disparate nature of KML material on multiple web-based platforms (much of which is classified as ‘grey literature’), curation and analysis of the most important knowledge and learning has become more challenging. Although organisations like 3ie conduct ad hoc state of the art reviews on specific themes in nutrition and other sectors and publications like the Lancet produce and update reviews of nutrition, (the third Lancet series on nutrition has just been published), they make use of a fraction of the learning material ‘out there’. The upshot of this is that if you are a programmer, policy maker or researcher sitting in a country seeking specific nutrition information and knowledge, it is very difficult to know where to go to get the most up to date definitive evidence and knowledge on a subject or indeed to make use of more than a fraction of the material available. It is simply overwhelming. There have been initiatives aiming to better curate knowledge for example, SISN on implementation of nutrition programmes and make this available to countries, but these are not easily sustained.
The N4D review of KML for the SUN Movement’s third phase concluded that better curation and signposting of nutrition KML is a critical need which could be met through some form of global knowledge hub. The primary goal of such a hub would be to signpost, curate, provide quality assurance and analysis to support country actors to make better use of the ever-increasing KML resources in order to strengthen their policies, programmes and advocacy.
The N4D review also concluded that for KML systems to better serve the needs of country actors, there needs to be a greater focus on strengthening national KML in parallel to improving the streamlining of, access to, and use of, global KML resources.
Strengthening KML capacity at national level is important for several reasons; KML is more likely to meet nationally defined needs for knowledge and learning if the work is done at country level with findings relevant to country context, it is more likely to influence decision-makers at national level with the knowledge and learning generated becoming part of a country’s institutional memory and, strengthening national KML capacity can lead to nationally owned and sustainable KML mechanisms.
We believe that strengthening national KML capacity isn’t quite as hard as it may sound and is mostly a question of political will. Every country has some form of information and knowledge system for nutrition and, whilst there is an enormous range of approach, focus, sophistication and connectedness to the needs of decision-makers, it is countries that need to define their priority knowledge and learning needs, and then expect alignment and support from external actors when necessary to support these needs. As proposed in the N4D review, some form of working group as part of a multi-sector and stakeholder platforms could be the place to have conversations about KML priority needs and gaps.
In this time of COVID 19, when countries are increasingly thrown back on their own resources, talents and capacity, it seems even more imperative to use every window of opportunity global support actors have to strengthen national KML systems and align global efforts behind country needs.