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Can collaborative learning accelerate progress on adolescent health and nutrition?

3 Key Findings from Our Research

By Yashodhara Rana and Augustin Flory of Results for Development & Leigh Golden and Marion Roche of Nutrition International

Investments in adolescent health and nutrition confer a triple dividend of returns — today, into adulthood and, potentially, for the next generation of children. Therefore, they are critical for the overall success of the Sustainable Development Goals. The World Health Organization’s new guidelines, a series of publications by the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Well-Being and the launch of several initiatives to move this field forward demonstrate growing recognition of the unmet nutrition and health needs of adolescents.

However, while the evidence base is emerging on what needs to be done, implementation remains slow. One reason for this is many countries are grappling with similar implementation challenges on how to do it questions, such as: how to reach out of school adolescents; how to create comprehensive metrics for young adolescents whose nutritional status is not captured by existing data systems; and how to integrate nutrition within existing programs, such as those on sexual and reproductive health among others.

Though there are a number of ways to approach these challenges, one mechanism that may accelerate their ability to drive change is a collaborative action-oriented learning network for adolescent health and nutrition.

What is a collaborative action-oriented learning network and what can it offer?

The purpose of a collaborative action-oriented learning network is to bring together peer policymakers and practitioners to share their own experience and knowledge with one another and co-create practical solutions to common implementation problems they face. By doing so together, peers would empower each other to accelerate change. Key features of this kind of network include in-person workshops and virtual exchanges, where practitioners could exchange experience on what has worked, what has not worked and why — alongside work to co-develop practical tools and knowledge products to share as global public goods. This leads to increased ownership and uptake of the knowledge and best practices by those who were part of the process.

In other sectors, learning networks such as the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI), the Effective Institutions Platform (EIP), Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) and the Joint Learning Network for Universal Health Coverage (JLN) have served as platforms for members to access experiential knowledge from their peers, synthesize those experiences into global best practices, and adapt this new knowledge to their specific context for implementation.

To begin exploring the potential of a collaborative action-oriented learning network to accelerate progress in adolescent health and nutrition, R4D was commissioned by Nutrition International (NI) to conduct a pre-scoping study to determine if a case could be made for such a network among a subset of countries in Africa.

In this blog, we share three key findings from this study, which was conducted using desk reviews and stakeholder consultations focused on the global landscape as well as five countries, including: Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania.

1. There are 4 key challenges in the adolescent health and nutrition landscape.

Across both global and country specific consultations, stakeholders mentioned four major types of challenges in the adolescent health and nutrition landscape which included:

  • A general lack of data on adolescent which makes programming and policymaking difficult;
  • A lack of knowledge around adolescent health issues and especially nutrition issues;
  • A lack of active sharing of actual implementation experiences as most of the knowledge sharing is passive where discussants share high level findings from their studies but don’t delve in what worked/what didn’t and finally; and
  • The need to enhance coordination within the health sector, with other sectors, and for a few stakeholders with the private sector as there are a multitude of both governmental and non-governmental actors working in the adolescent health and nutrition space.

2. There is potential for a collaborative action-oriented learning network to work.

While a collaborative action-oriented learning network would not be able to address all stakeholder needs, evidence shows it has the potential to accelerate progress by growing the knowledge base for how to overcome implementation barriers and mobilizing and empowering key practitioners to drive change. In particular, such a platform could: a) bring attention to adolescent health and nutrition issues, b) lower the barrier to implementation and therefore catalyze action, c) facilitate multi-country learnings and sharing of information, and d) bring together multiple stakeholders that are critical for adolescent health and nutrition. While most of the stakeholders consulted for the study were interested in the potential of an action-oriented learning network, they also emphasized the need for such a network to coordinate with existing platforms and initiatives to avoid duplication and share resources and learnings across platforms.

3. There is an existing landscape of networks for adolescent health and nutrition.

At the regional and global levels, 79 networks and initiatives were considered — 24 of which were found relevant to this analysis in either technical scope (adolescent health and nutrition), membership (key stakeholders, such as policymakers targeted) or their focus on learning. A review of global and regional networks revealed several existing platforms and initiatives that could function as strong partners for action-oriented learning on adolescent health and nutrition, such as the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) network, Family Planning 2020, Emergency Nutrition Network (ENN), Ouagadougou Partnership among others. However, based on initial assessments, it appears that these networks are either unlikely to champion adolescent health and nutrition as a core issue or retrofit their network characteristics to include attributes outlined in Box 1 to allow for collaborative learning among key change agents.

Box 1. Attributes of a Learning Network that employs a collaborative learning approach

  • Engages the “right” people who are positioned to contribute experience and implement change
  • Leverages local stakeholder groups for coordination and implementation
  • Flexibly responds to member demands
  • Maintains a safe space with a neutral convener
  • Disseminates co-created knowledge
  • Sets measurable targets and tracks results

As we continue to think about how to accelerate progress on adolescent health and nutrition, we welcome your reflections and suggestions to the findings presented above.

We would like to acknowledge the generous contributions made to this work by NI colleagues across the organization, in particular, Luz Maria De-Regil and Brian Harrigan, R4D colleague Amanda Folsom for her strategic guidance and R4D team members Laura Becker, Samantha Ferguson and Susan Wang who led this work.

Photo © Jessica Lea/Department for International Development

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