cdaCDA Collaborative Learning Projects is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the effectiveness of international actors who provide humanitarian assistance.

Working off the premise that experience is a good teacher, CDA facilitates collaborative learning processes to analyze the experiences of international efforts.

With this vision comes a mission to encourage communities to engage in peace practice and to support sustainable development.

CDA works with agencies and organizations to identify patterns and lessons across different contexts in order to improve effectiveness. So far its core staff has worked in over 90 countries with local and international partners.

Below is the implementation process of these CDA lessons that often produces new focus questions for improving effectiveness:

Step 1: Development of Training and Awareness Materials

The findings from a collaborative learning process are translated into a form that can be used in different briefings, exposure workshops and extended training events in order to make such findings accessible to other field practitioners.

Step 2: Building Individual Capacity

CDA training programs work not only with organizations but also with individual practitioners to develop the skills needed to implement CDA lessons into their own practices. Mentoring can play a big role in this area when it comes to knowing how to apply specific tools surrounding the framework of a specific organizational setting.

Step 3: Organizational Accompaniment

CDA works directly with partner organizations to incorporate the tools and concepts from its lessons into their routines so that the tools and concepts become a day-to-day practice. This may require training and various forms of coaching to ensure sustainability.

Step 4: Support for Improved Program Design

CDA lessons often require changes in the ways that programs are designed. Thus, it works with partner agencies to promote improvements that will result in better quality programming through design and implementation.

Step 5: Monitoring Progress and Impacts

CDA works with its partners to track the implementation of its skills, tools and concepts gained from CDA programs. This feedback ultimately tells if the application of CDA materials makes a positive difference in the effectiveness of programming.

Step 6: Implications and New Questions

When everyone comes together to share their experiences, new focus questions arise that add to the learning processes — and the cycle repeats!

Since its launch, CDA has been grounded in field experience rather than following a specific theory or model and develops the above process through which organizations learn with each other rather than relying on their experiences alone.

CDA is currently home to the Corporate Engagement Program, the Do No Harm Program and other peace practice programs. For more information, please visit the CDA website at

Chelsee Yee

Sources: CDA Collarborative, ALNAP, Relief Web
Photo: Flickr

Without getting too technical, collaborative learning is essentially a highly applicable, catchall term for just about anything involving group efforts seeking a shared solution.  The inclusive nature of it fosters greater understanding of the issues at hand, inviting different ideas and problem solving methods.  There are no concrete answers to problems, only a continual coming together for improvement.  

We see collaborative learning in pockets in the developing world, sometimes fostered by nonprofit groups.  The goals of alleviating global poverty, having accessible and quality education for all, and possessing the right tools and technology to actualize that progress are all shared by many groups including those in the nonprofit sector.  However, it can be said that of these well meaning groups not everyone is exactly on the same page.  This is where the CDA Collaborative Learning Projects group steps in to amplify the effectiveness of active nonprofits and aid groups.  Think of them as NPO consultants.

By pouring over the experiences, findings, and work of a collection of organizations with shared goals and functions, CDA can pinpoint what could’ve been done better.  Based in Cambridge, MA, a small staff of highly trained professionals from government ranks, humanitarian groups, development organizations, and the private sector form these highly poignant assessments.  They’re funded by world governments and international agencies and championed for their pragmatic approaches to obstinate issues like global poverty alleviation.  CDA is most known for their “Do Not Harm” (DNH) conflict assessment approach, which helps actors in the field gauge how their effort affect societal conflicts where they work.  The goal of DNH is to ensure peace and as little sociocultural kerfuffle as possible.

The innovative approach CDA employs is rooted in fieldwork and not theory, combining the experiences of many aid organizations into a broad knowledge base.  The experience is obtained in the field by workers who author case studies which are later analyzed.  When a given amount of case studies are explored, CDA calls on aid groups for workshops where findings are shared and feedback is encouraged.  Tools like handbooks are developed to help in the field next time.

In January 2013, a report from IRIN News indicated that busy aid workers make time to speak with and most importantly listen to their beneficiaries.  One worker interviewed in Lebanon said that it took three weeks of listening to get an honest perspective from the community.  Responses like this from 6,000 aid workers operating in 20 nations were pooled and released in a CDA account entitled “Time to Listen.”  Results indicated that while their assistance was noted and appreciated by their respective communities, it wasn’t as potentially effective as it could be.  For instance, the arrival of supplies is a valued, momentous event for communities.  However, the manner in which it’s delivered is what dispirited them; it became very impersonal and fostered feelings of dependency from the community rather than cooperation with benefactors.  Aid was just dispensed with no thought to ask what the beneficiaries wanted.

If communities were part of the process, CDA posited that aid would’ve been streamlined, transparent, and correctly targeted.  Collaboration also would’ve allowed for future planning once projects concluded, eliminating feelings of desertion.  Many communities asked for less and wanted to eradicate notions of dependency.   Another issue is the misappropriation of funds.  With donors, there exists an idea that funding must be focused which earmarks money only for certain things.  Once the money makes it to the community, it can’t be applied to local priorities due to predetermined conditions.  “Time To Listen” calls for just that so that the proper aid is doled out, money is saved and spent correctly, and most importantly key emotional connections are made and partnerships between benefactor and beneficiary strengthened.  People don’t want money thrown at them, they want to play an equal part in the solution to poverty.

David Smith

Sources: Oregon State, CDA, Time to Listen
Photo: Calvin