How USAID/Vietnam’s Learning Dojo Is Honing Local MEL Skills

Jan 23, 2024
Success Stories
Japanese circular window with view of red and green treesPhoto credit: Ryutaro Tsukata

When you picture entering a dojo, a Japanese term for a place of learning in the martial arts, you might imagine a low building with a curved, tiled roof. Inside, you might see an open room, with a peaceful aura of quiet focus, where students concentrate on learning alongside an experienced teacher.

USAID/Vietnam’s Learning Dojo has adapted that concept of a dojo as a place of focused mentorship and applies it to the practice of monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) for USAID partners. The Learning Dojo was developed by the USAID Learns project implemented by Social Impact. Set up as a space for teams to learn MEL practices from experts, the Learning Dojo aims to make MEL accessible and understandable to a wide array of team members. 

By bringing everyone together, this approach is shifting the partners’ perception of MEL from “MEL means extra workload” to “MEL means collaboration...for better implementation.”

Not Just for MEL Specialists

MEL is a facet of development work that transcends subject-matter-specific disciplines. Understanding and utilizing MEL is vital throughout partner organizations and for all project team members: for management, to understand where their projects are succeeding or falling behind; for communications teams, to be able to tell the story of their success effectively; and for technical teams, to be able to refine approaches. 

Giang Le Tong, a CLA Advisor with USAID/Vietnam’s Program Office states, “If we [only] focused on supporting partners’ MEL specialists, we’d see minimal changes at the institutional level. It’s very difficult for them to convince their management teams about the benefits of effective monitoring. So we thought, if we only target the MEL staff, the outcome is very limited. If we want to see change at the institutional level, we need the awareness of others through training.”

USAID Learns created three Learning Dojo tracks—Specialist, Strategist, and Leadership—tailored to different staff roles, developing curricula that were relevant and applicable for not only MEL specialists but also organizational leaders and technical specialists. The dojo curriculum draws on adult learning principles and a peer-cohort model to help partner organizations “put learning at the center of their project implementation to produce better development results.”

The Importance of MEL for Locally Led Development

Too often, MEL is thought of as just an award requirement. Instead, MEL can be an opportunity for local partners to define their own vision of success from the beginning of an activity and think through how that success can be achieved. It is also a chance for USAID to engage more deeply in exploring how an activity will achieve its intended results, and think through how to best support the partner. 

Instead of simply creating a list of indicators and processes to meet USAID requirements, an Activity MEL Plan (AMELP) can convey the results local stakeholders care about and lay out a strong plan for how those results will be captured, learned from, and used for program improvement. This sets up both USAID and the partner to use data for adaptive management, contributing to more sustainable, meaningful outcomes.

Through the Learning Dojo, USAID Learns meets partners where they are to help make MEL more meaningful. Their approach draws on adult learning principles and a peer cohort model, fostering an environment that helps all implementing partner staff and their managers maximize the value they can derive from MEL based on their unique roles within their organizations. For example, cohorts of MEL specialists and strategists learn tools (for example, stakeholder mapping or pause-and-reflect) to better engage their teams in data collection, learning, and adapting, while partner leadership engages in a separate cohort that focuses on topics such as integrating Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting, or CLA, into their organizational cultures to identify strategic priorities for growth.

Becoming a MEL “Black Belt”

Although you may not have access to USAID/Vietnam and the Learns contract’s MEL support, there are several important lessons that you can put in place to improve your project’s MEL practices:

  • Spend time on a MEL plan to set a strong foundation. The USAID Learns contract conducted AMELP clinics with implementing partner teams—including the Chief of Party, program staff, MEL staff, and respective Agreement Officer’s Representatives (AORs) or Contracting Officer’s Representatives (CORs). These clinics centered on the collaborative development of an AMELP that would serve as a useful project management and learning tool throughout the activity. “At first when we conducted the AMELP clinic,” notes Thao Dinh, the USAID Learns Capacity Building Director, “not all the implementing partners (IPs) believed in the usefulness.”  However, as they participated, IP leaders discovered the value of the multi-day session, as it provided an opportunity for all team members—not just the MEL staff—to reach alignment and establish buy-in on the theory of change, indicators, and learning activities. This helped move the AMELP beyond a box-ticking exercise, placing learning at the center of implementation and empowering program staff to make more evidence-based decisions. For example, the Building the University-Industry Learning & Development through Innovation and Technology (BUILD-IT) activity team learned the value of strategic pause and reflect sessions, and conducted one focused on their events connecting students with enterprises. This session revealed that, despite positive feedback on the events, female participation was very low. As a result, they were able to develop several solutions to address this gender gap, resulting in a notable increase in female participation.
  • Put time for learning in the work plan.  Opportunities for reflecting on quantitative, qualitative, and experiential data tend to get left behind when activity implementation gets busy! Be specific about the who, what, when, and where of learning from the outset, and ensure this is captured in both the AMELP and the work plan. Planning for this from the beginning also helps ensure that any resources—for example, supplies or a venue for a partners’ learning event, or staff time for reflection sessions—are included in the activity budget. 
  • Plan for bureaucratic realities that can derail your MEL foundation. “In Vietnam, the context is unique,” Giang explains. All activities must go through the Government of Vietnam’s project approval, which takes six months to over two years. Once that approval is obtained, there is a rush to get the work plan and AMELP done, which makes it more challenging to develop these through a participatory process. To avoid this, USAID Learns engages activity teams and AORs/CORs on AMELP development early, usually right after award kick-off meetings. This allows them to take time for planning and achieve consensus among the project team, AOR/COR, and other local stakeholders before project approval. 
  • Collaborate! USAID wants its partners to succeed. As Giang points out, taking a holistic, mentoring approach to MEL, as exemplified by the Learning Dojo, enables the Mission to center learning. “We encourage IPs to be open to speaking with the Mission and ask for support. If they are able to collect better data and have a better story to tell, we can all understand how to do our work better.”

USAID’s Learning Dojo exemplifies the Mission’s overall approach to development. “Learning is at the center of everything we do,” emphasizes Giang. For partners, an inquisitive mindset that is shared by all IP staff—and a MEL framework that is understood throughout the project or organization—will go a long way toward fostering development solutions that are guided, shaped, and refined by data. 

Read more about USAID Learns and explore some of their additional key resources. Find additional resources for locally led MEL on Learning Lab, including an AMELP template designed for partners new to USAID and a job aid to help USAID staff review MEL plans with a locally led development lens. Find out how other local partners have found value in MEL in this recent blog from El Salvador. Starting a MEL plan of your own? Check out this USAID Training Module on Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning

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