An Interview with Mark Lewis, ELLA Programme Director
Interviewed by Becky Clements, international development consultant specialised in knowledge management
ELLA is in its fifth year now. Where did the original idea for ELLA come from?
From DFID [the UK’s Department for International Development], from its Research and Evidence Division. The UK graduated Latin American countries from bilateral aid support in the mid-2000s. But DFID believed that there was much to learn from Latin America. And that the rest of the world often missed out on this, because of language barriers, or simply because Latin American knowledge was not being synthesised and shared in a an effective way. So they put a project out to tender, and we [Practical Action Consulting, Latin America] won the competition,heading up a consortium of Southern-based partners.
ELLA seems to cover a broad set of themes and topics. How were these chosen?
It was a mix of factors. We sought to identify themes on which it was felt Latin America had some sort of comparative advantage, or an innovative approach to an issue. But where there was also a likely demand for learning from countries in Africa and South Asia. So we did some literature review, expert interviews and ran some surveys. DFID advisers also had a say, and were keen for us to cover economic, governance and environmental themes.
The first phase of ELLA had these two components, the synthesis of Latin American knowledge and the sharing of this. How did this play out?
We worked with three research partners – GRADE in Peru, Fundar in Mexico, and South South North in Brazil – on both the synthesis of evidence into guides and briefs on each theme. And on the ELLA Learning Alliances, which were the main mechanism for sharing and exchanging this Latin American knowledge with researchers, government officials and civil society actors – from African and South Asian countries.
Our partners did a great job on synthesising evidence and sharing lessons on Latin America’s experiences. And the learning alliances – a form of community of practice, following a structured learning programme – worked well to eke out contrasting experiences. Many participants in the learning alliances were inspired by Latin America’s practices, and we have lots of interesting examples of how this knowledge has been used.
At the same time, the transfer of knowledge between one region and another represents a real challenge for different reasons.
What were the challenges you experienced?
Well, participants in the learning alliances would often observe that the political or social context was very different in their own country, compared to that in Latin America. And it was difficult to see whether it was really possible for their own country to pursue some of the policies practiced in Latin America. People wanted to know more about how to achieve policy change in their own countries, about the path that Latin America countries had trod, and whether this was viable in African and South Asian contexts.
Of course this reflects the fact that experiences are context specific, so knowledge of these experiences is unlikely to be easily generalizable or transferable to other contexts. From the outset, in ELLA knowledge materials, we sought to identify the underlying contextual variables, or enabling factors , that permitted Latin American countries to travel certain journeys. But this left a lot to the reader, or to the participant in the learning alliances. They needed to interpret and to work out what was relevant and what was possible, or even desirable, in their own countries.
So now you are into a second phase of ELLA, you have tried to address these challenges. What have been the changes?
I think we have a more developed design for this second phase of ELLA which began last year – and which is focused on knowledge exchange between Latin America and African countries. We are doing three main things differently.
First, instead of working only with Latin American research centres, we are working with both Latin American and African research centres from the outset. Six Latin American and six African research centres in total. The idea is that with knowledge from two directions, we will be much better informed about how an issue has played out in both continents, which should make the potential for mutual learning much easier.
Second, we are deepening the research side of the programme, in the sense that we will be researching the deeper contextual or conditioning variables that have led to different outcomes in Latin American and African countries. Again this is to ease mutual learning.
Third, although we have selected topics where we believe Latin America has interesting experiences to offer, we approach this comparative exercise in a spirit of multi-way learning. We don’t see this is as a simple linear process of knowledge transfer from Latin America to Africa. The learning is likely to be more organic.
We are currently in the research stage of this second phase. But we hope that the way we have set up the research, with a comparative framework in place from the outset, will put us in a much stronger place when it comes to the exchange and learning phase – with outreach to many potential users of this knowledge.