Executive summary: COVID-19 and a new demand for learning

COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on the functioning and programming of the humanitarian sector. Despite challenges, the pandemic may present opportunities to fast track a shift towards a locally led response by reinforcing the commitment of aid organisations implementing responses “as local as possible and as international as necessary” (IASC 2016: 3).

To better understand the scale of that opportunity, as well as the challenges, the Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA) delivered a piece of research together with the department of International Development at the London School of Economics (LSE). Applying a mixed-method methodology that included an extensive literature review, a survey, interviews with the selected learners, as well as analysis of the data from our nominated digital learning programme: Humanitarian Operations Programme (HOP) Fundamentals, we have not only confirmed some our assumptions, but gained fascinating insights on what the future of digital humanitarian learning could look like to meet the current as well as the forthcoming needs.

While designed and rolled-out well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the HLA’s HOP Fundamentals is an introductory, open access course that enables users to access content remotely, and easily tailor the content to their needs. It is part of the HLA’s vast portfolio of capacity strengthening programmes which equip local and national organisations, meaning those closest to the frontline have the skills and knowledge needed to manage effective humanitarian responses.

This deep dive approach not only allowed us to explore how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the access and use of different learning opportunities for those working in the humanitarian sector, but also allowed us to reflect on what this means for the wider localisation agenda.

One opportunity that our findings make very clear is that humanitarians globally are seeking learning opportunities at an unprecedented scale. A quick look at the rapid growth of the HLA’s global online learning platform, Kaya, shows a huge increase in demand for humanitarian learning in the first year of the global pandemic (from 69,820 new signups in 2019/2020 to 158,926 in 2020/2021).

The following conclusions confirm that humanitarian learners accessed HOP Fundamentals to improve their own capacity to respond to humanitarian needs, which in result benefited and strengthened the capacity of their national and local organisations. The quantitative analysis of HOP Fundamentals’ Anglophone learning pathways reveal a steep growth in online access to HOP Fundamentals after the onset of the pandemic, with 81% (2,862) of all users completing at least one module during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zooming in at the East and Southern Africa region (which has the highest number of learners from across all regions), we see a growth of 263%. It is important to note that the Anglophone version was launched in 2019, so a year before the global pandemic was announced by the World Health Organisation.

An open invite survey we initiated, in addition to the Kaya platform’s data analysis, further confirmed the above claims. National and local humanitarians want to prepare themselves to respond to emergencies in the best way they can. The COVID-19 pandemic not only created a capacity gap, but also provided an opportunity where so much of decision making in terms of running humanitarian programming and responses has moved from the international headquarters to the country and field offices.

However, this great opportunity exposed also some pre-existing limitations that need to be addressed if we are aiming to fully democratise the learning and leave no one behind: access to technology for marginalised groups, including women, technological literacy or gaps in contextualised content available in different languages.

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