Learning for development: How do we know what works?


Increasing extreme poverty, inefficient urban transport, increasing deforestation of forest reserves, youth unemployment of around 50%: these are just some of the headlines that dominate our day-to-day discussion in Paraguay. These are persistent problems that interact with each other in a complex and dynamic ways.

The public sector, private companies, NGOs, and international cooperation organizations continually undertake initiatives to face one or another aspect of these and other problems. Proposed solutions are diverse: information and educational campaigns, public-private agreements, multi-sector initiatives, new technologies, new legislation, new institutions and many other approaches. But how do we know what works (and what doesn't) for development?  

To answer this question, UNDP advances a simple proposal: the iteration of action and learning cycles to fuel the innovation of new development approaches.

Action and learning are two complementary orientations, always present in development initiatives. Behind any action, there is a hypothesis about the expected result (or effect). And, in parallel, any proposed action is built upon some learning from previous actions and their results.

Action and learning are two complementary orientations, always present in development initiatives. UNDP is committed to strengthening the links within the cycle of action and learning to facilitate innovation for sustainable development.


The pressures and pace of responding to development challenges, however, doesn’t always leave space to reflect on our actions and the learning they produce. This hinders our ability to innovate based on evidence.


How do we integrate learning into the UNDP’s actions?

To better integrate these two orientations, the UNDP launched its Acceleration Laboratories (AccLabs), in 2019, forming a global network of 60 teams around the world. The laboratories, which are now expanding their number to a total of 90, represent a formal space for learning within the UNDP that is aimed at identifying effective development policies and accelerating their adoption.

Paraguay is one of seven countries (soon to be 14) that are part of this network in Latin America. We launched AccLabPY in October 2019, incorporating our own interdisciplinary team of innovation experts, with knowledge and experiences from the social sciences, technology studies, and business administration. Drawing on these diverse perspectives, we will work to make distinct moments of action and learning more explicit, to design tools and methodologies that facilitate the agile integration of the two orientations, and to placing both mindsets at the center of the design and execution of development policy for the 21st century.


Our learning method is based on 4 stages:

(1) Sense challenges and innovations in local contexts,

(2) Explore the solutions to the challenges identified within thee global network of laboratories and with strategic allies to produce a portfolio of potential solutions,

(3) Test with these solutions in local context to generate evidence about what works, why, and under what conditions, constructing portfolios of interventions to confront complex challenges from multiple fronts. 

The sum of these three phases (not always linear or sequential) sets us up to:

(4) Grow the interventions with proven track records, taking these solutions to a larger scale and to different contexts.

Through these cycles, the logic of learning, necessary for innovation, is integrated with the logic of action that gives development programs and projects their purpose.


From theory to the practice: the first steps of the AccLabPY

So far, everything sounds good, but how do we translate this process into real experiences? Each laboratory faces the same challenge at the beginning: bringing the global vision down to earth and identifying concrete tools.

At AccLabPY, we translated each phase of the cycle into different objectives, which we put into practice through the selection, design and re-design of methodological tools for learning and innovation.

The objectives of AccLabPY


During AccLabPY’s first months we pursued two objectives: (1) identifying challenges and (2) finding learning opportunities. To pursue them we (3) designed prototypes of methodological tools, which we tested with participants from different organizations in spaces both inside and outside of the UNDP.

These are the first steps in two learning exercises: first, identifying the stretegic learning assets and opportunities within UNDP Paraguay’s portfolio of projects (Portfolio Sensemaking), and second, analyzing the variety of initiatives outside the UNDP currently aimed at defining development challenges in Paraguay (Horizon Scanning). The purpose of these exercises is to identify the specific sustainable development challenges that we will prioritize in the coming years at the UNDP in Paraguay.

This post is the beginning of a series where we will narrate the results of these activities. Along the way, we will openly share the innovation tools we design, as well as our experiences putting them into practice. We hope you will use, adapt and re-design them in your community. There is precious little time left to achieve our development goals by 2030. “Leaving no one behind” means learning to innovate continuously in order to accelerate economic and social development.

This is our mission and we invite you to be part of it.


Lea este blog en español aquí.


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