Mutual learning: development fad or foundation?

Published on 19 March 2021

Alex Shankland

Research Fellow

Shandana Khan Mohmand

Cluster leader and Research Fellow

Gerald Bloom

Research Fellow

Rachel Dixon

Partnerships and Fundraising Officer

Is ‘mutual learning’ simply a development trend, or an important foundation for development cooperation and global governance? Who benefits from mutual learning? And what role should organisations like IDS play in mutual learning for development?

What do we mean by mutual learning?

The question of how to participate in knowledge exchange is fundamental to development practice and, at a recent workshop with colleagues involved in the IDS International Initiatives, it was considered essential to how we evolve our thinking and research agenda. But the concept of mutual learning is complex, multifaceted, context specific, and defined by the relationship between participants. Mutual learning is a scale; while it aims to be balanced between parties sometimes it will benefit one party’s learning more. While learning can be deep and transformational, it can be more informal and between individuals.

Figure 1: word cloud responding to the question ‘what does mutual learning mean to you?’. Completed by IDS colleagues

Mutual learning as a phrase originated in China. It can be interpreted as an opportunity or platform (when and where) for knowledge exchange. Others focus more on the process (how and what); how to build relationships or develop policies in a participatory and inclusive way. The ambition is for ‘learning without borders or categories’ (such as low-income country or ‘developed’) where processes are tailored to ensure learning is horizontal and reciprocal.

Mutual learning is vital to how we decolonise development and global governance. It is a means of diversifying the voices at the table, and facilitating true multi-directional knowledge exchanges. ‘Decolonisation’ is a complex term and of varying relevance to different contexts. For some countries, including China, they were never colonies. In other regions (such as Latin America) ‘decolonial’ issues tend to relate more to national experiences of the treatment of indigenous peoples and economic subordination after independence than to occupation by a colonial power.

We need to move beyond the idea that ‘poor countries need capacity building to develop’ but must be mindful that we risk losing the richness of ‘mutuality’ if it is understood as the UK only receiving knowledge. Decolonisation is important but, in some ways, mutual learning goes further. While recognising multiple, historical, and constructed power relations, it perhaps considers the full picture of flows of power, finance, and knowledge.

Why does mutual learning matter for global development?

In recent decades, spaces for development cooperation have shifted to include trilateral, south-south, north-south, and south-north configurations. While the UK and the US have withdrawn from some of their multilateral commitments, other countries including the BRICS have built new spaces for collaboration. Mutual learning can encourage these new spaces and information sharing by challenging behaviours such as national exceptionalism. While some may be reluctant to see beyond the differences in their contexts, those who invest in mutual learning often report finding significant commonalities and benefits from learning with counterparts working in very different contexts.

Mutual learning recognises that challenges like climate change, inequality, democratic backsliding, and epidemics are not ‘problems for the Global South’, but shared, if perhaps experienced differently. The Sustainable Development Goals reinforce this, by providing a framework and platform for sharing innovations, skills, and expertise across borders to address global challenges. At a more local level, it has prompted IDS to engage in research related to these challenges in the UK, including the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme’s collaborations with the Brighton and Hove Council, and the Digital Cluster’s work on disconnected workers and rapid digitization through Covid-19.

How do we walk the talk

IDS’ approach is rooted in our commitment to principles of reciprocity, justice, acknowledging and balancing power dynamics, participation, respect, and curiosity. We have a long history of championing these values through participatory methods, power analysis, and engaged partnerships. The Rising Powers in International Development Programme explored different existing approaches to policy and learning exchange through the Mutual Learning Research initiative. This programme developed into the Centre for Rising Powers and Development, and two of the IDS International Initiatives, described below.

We encourage learning in collaboration and for general benefit versus learning for our own benefit. We continually question the position we take and our role in co-designing mutual learning opportunities. Often, our role is to convene safe spaces for conversations, build networks, help to diversify the voices at the table, and ultimately champion the value of mutual learning.

Mutual learning and the IDS International Initiatives

One way in which we seek to do more to promote mutual learning is through the IDS International Initiatives, launched in 2020. Developed to bring focus to geographies at the leading edge of development thinking and practice due to accelerating geopolitical change, they recognise that tackling global challenges requires knowledge sharing, mutual learning, and collaboration to inform policy decision making based on local, national and global participation.

In effect, the IDS International Initiatives create spaces where researchers from within and outside of the country can share, learn, and work with IDS researchers, governments, civil society, communities, and the private sector. As a result, they strengthen development thinking and practice by generating actionable solutions towards positive change which includes opportunities for new partnerships, research, learning, and joint policy programmes either in-country or across the evolving network of Brazil, China, Europe, Ghana, Pakistan.

For the IDS International Initiatives, mutual learning in practice involves a range of activities and approaches including:

  • Strengthening the representation of our partners’ knowledge by making it accessible to all, including through knowledge repositories on OpenDocs, case studies and policy briefs.
  • Building networks, for example as UK Anchor Institution to the China International Development Research Network, through which we help promote knowledge exchange and mutual learning to inform Chinese policy towards the UN Global Goals.
  • We can then mobilise this knowledge through co-delivered participatory training, professional development and higher education. For example, Miguel Loureiro is building networks between Brazilian, Pakistani and Nigerian civil servants around research and training for and with bureaucrats on participatory public policy making and the effective use of evidence. Participants find opportunities to engage with speakers and colleagues from other countries a valuable learning opportunity.
  • Facilitating mutual learning exchanges, including during policy making. For example, learning exchanges between health professionals and local health system managers across Brazil, China and the UK which identified valuable points of convergence on approaches to engaging patients in health systems. The European Engagement Initiative’s webinar series on youth employment and politics brings together representatives from academia, civil society, governments and UN agencies to strengthen development thinking and practice for more effective interventions for ‘the Covid generation’.
  • Webinars that bring together researchers, policy makers and practitioners and reach global audiences. For example, the Mahbub ul Haq Distinguished Lecture series, co-hosted with the Lahore University of Management Sciences, our anchor partner for the Pakistan Hub. The series aims to encourage globally renowned speakers to share knowledge towards ‘building forward differently’ in Pakistan and globally. In November 2020, IDS brought together researchers and a foundation working on food and racial inequalities in Brazil to explore how social movements and academics come together in progressive networks driven by concerns with food inequalities.

Mutual learning will continue to be fundamental to how we as a research and learning organisation operate. Going forward, we aim to open up our discussions on what it means and how best to facilitate mutual learning by building on the experiences of our networks. If you would like to take part and share your view, please contact Rachel Dixon or visit each initiative’s webpage.

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