John Mitchell: “Collective learning is the key. The most successful changes and improvements I have seen come about by learning and working together"

07 Jul 2021

This month, John Mitchell stepped down as ALNAP Director after 19 years of service. In his final few days of the role, John spoke to long-time ALNAP member Loreine B. Dela Cruz, Executive Director at the Centre for Disaster Preparedness in the Philippines, about his joys, challenges and the lessons he has learned.

John: It’s lovely to see you, Loreine. You’ve been an ALNAP member for a long time now. We first met many years ago.

Loreine: Many years ago! I would come to the Annual Meetings and learning events and watch you doing speeches. ALNAP is very helpful to our organisation – it helps us have a global perspective and at the same time move our work forward at a country level – so I would always look forward to what you had to say. At first, I thought you were quite formal and serious, but I have since found out that you are very easy to speak to!

John, can you briefly narrate your experience of being with ALNAP?

I joined ALNAP in 2002, just a few years after it was established. It was set up after the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, which most people know describes a chaotic, uncoordinated response to the Rwanda genocide. The report recommended that a system-wide learning network was set up to bring together different constituencies in the humanitarian sector. We knew if we could bring everyone together to learn and act collectively, we could do a better job.

In 2019, over 200 people attended ALNAP’s 32nd Annual Meeting in Berlin. © ALNAP

I was involved in those initial discussions when I worked for the British Red Cross and I was at the first meetings in 1997/98. They were put together by John Borton, a Research Fellow in HPG [ODI's Humanitarian Policy Group] and there were about 30 people in the room – primarily evaluators and donors, some NGOs and a few academics. The community working on these issues was much smaller than it is today. In those days you could get everybody around a table, everybody knew one another. Many of those involved also had a hand in creating The Ombudsman Project, The Humanitarian Accountability Project and Sphere. Everybody knew these initiatives were necessary and there was a great sense of excitement that we were actually making them happen. I remember thinking at the time what a great idea ALNAP was, and over 20 years later I look back and I am quietly amazed that the structure and mandate of ALNAP have hardly changed since its initial inception. The idea has now been well tested and has certainly proved its worth!

How has the membership grown since then?

In the beginning, ALNAP’s largest member constituency was the donor community. The NGO constituency was quite small in the early days, but the membership has grown incrementally and steadily for 20 years, from 30 to over 100. Incremental growth has been very important to ALNAP’s ability to manage itself. If you bring in lots of agencies at once it’s going to create turbulence, but our growth has been very smooth.

What have been the milestones of the network and the Secretariat under your helm?

The first milestone, I suppose, was just getting the thing going. Hats off to the original pioneers for making that happen!

The second was a meeting we had in 2003 at Tufts University in Boston. Prior to this, there had been discussions between those who wanted to keep the membership evaluation only, and others who said we needed policy people, practitioners and leaders to get the system to learn together as a single community. The theme of the Boston meeting was ‘Protection in humanitarian action’. Those on the evaluation side asked why we were talking about protection, because strictly speaking it’s not about how to do evaluation, whilst others highlighted the importance of shared learning across disciplines. That was a very successful meeting. We had several expert academic speakers – Diane Paul, Hugo Slim, Antonio Donini, Larry Minnear – to name a few. I think that was the moment we realised that ALNAP was going to be more than just evaluation. We knew then that evaluation, by itself, would struggle to bring about real change and required more connection with other groups. In the end, the membership did expand but not at the expense of the evaluators, they remain fundamental to ALNAP to this day.

John, Paul Knox-Clarke (former ALNAP Head of Research) and Christine Knudsen (Director, Sphere) at a regional launch of the 4th State of the Humanitarian System report in Melbourne, 2018. © ALNAP

The next milestone, in my mind, was the creation of the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition [TEC] after the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Right after it happened, on Boxing Day in our country, we sent an email to the entire membership calling for a joint system-wide evaluation. We got an incredible response. Donors, UN agencies and INGOs all came forward in support. The Danish government held a meeting for us in Copenhagen where we worked out the whole structure of the evaluation and how each constituency group would be involved. That demonstrated to me that ALNAP had arrived, that we had credibility and legitimacy, and the convening power to bring together something big in the humanitarian system. And it was a great evaluation. We still use some of the lessons from it today.

Another milestone was the creation of the State of the Humanitarian System [SOHS] report. It would be the first time the humanitarian community could see, over time, which areas of humanitarian assistance were improving, which bits were stagnating, and which bits were failing. I had discussed the idea with colleagues in an Annual Meeting in Saly in Senegal, on the beach. I presented it to our Steering Committee and half of them said ‘It’s impossible. It’s not going to work. You’ve been in the sun too long, John.’ I really thought it could work, but that is an important role of the Steering Committee - they made me test the idea in my own mind.  

That report came out 12 years ago and was a seminal moment for ALNAP. We had endorsements from the most senior leaders in the sector: the IFRC [International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies] Secretary-General, the Director-General of the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, a senior donor from Sida [the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency] and Chair of the ICVA [International Council of Voluntary Agencies] Executive Committee. All leaders of the main constituencies that make up humanitarian action. Now, of course, we are working on the fifth edition of the report. I’m glad to say it has had great success.

Global Forum for Improving Humanitarian Action. New York, 2015. © ALNAP

Another milestone happened in 2015 when USAID invited ALNAP to organise a Global Forum as part of the consultations leading up to the World Humanitarian Summit. We developed the meeting in conjunction with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the League of Arab States. Samantha Power, then US Ambassador to the UN, provided the welcome address and we brought together over 200 people from around the globe. That was a high point for us, to be trusted to convene such a major event in the discussion leading up to the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. At that moment, we all realised what amazing convening power ALNAP had built up over the years.

I suppose the next milestone will be what happens with COVID. We can't have our lovely Annual Meetings in person or meet one another face to face. That is a great shame, but that's why we are bringing in more communication capacity. As we go forward, will be connecting with people online in new ways, reaching out to more people around the world and becoming more diverse in our outlook. I hope the next ALNAP milestone reflects this ambition.

What would you consider to be the highs and lows of the network during your time?

The highs are those I described before. Certainly, the Boston Biannual, the SOHS report, the TEC and the Global Forum were all so important in different ways. And I am sure there will be more highs just around the corner.

I’ve been very lucky to work with people in the Secretariat and in many member organisations that I have come to like as friends and respect greatly as colleagues.

With ALNAP, activity will peak around an Annual Meeting, drop off as we develop the work plan, then increase again when we have something like the SOHS launch. I would sometimes worry that we weren’t very visible in those ‘dips’, but I understand now that's just our natural rhythm throughout the year.

I don't think ALNAP has ever had a significant low point, though. One of the important things about ALNAP is that it has great consistency. Juliet [Parker – new Acting Director] will be only the third Director in 25 years. I think it’s been so important to have that consistency and to remain stable over time.

What about on the personal side?

There's no doubt that the joys come from colleagues and the relationships that you make in your working life. I’ve been very lucky to work with people in the Secretariat and in many member organisations that I have come to like as friends and respect greatly as colleagues.

Another joy is seeing people grow and really fulfill themselves. As you get a bit older, it’s very nice to see that happen – you feel a bit proud. It's really lovely to see people flourishing.

I find that when you are doing good work, when the work is relevant and led by the priorities of members, people want to get involved. People want to be part of something successful that will make a difference. When work is good, it attracts people.

In ALNAP, there are so many constituency groups with different ideas and priorities. People say ‘It must be very challenging to keep it all together', but for some reason, it just seems to work. I suppose there is a kind of diplomatic challenge there, but I’ve managed to do that quite happily. So, in summary, many, many joys and no horrible pain as such – rather some challenges, but they are generic challenges that inevitably come with the position.

Can you say that your life has changed while you’ve been with ALNAP? If so, how?
John speaks to Mark Lowcock, then UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, at ALNAP’s first virtual Annual Meeting in 2020. © ALNAP

Absolutely. It's been such a big part of my life for so long. It has given me an in-depth view of this complex and wonderful humanitarian system. We are a very self-critical community, and we are becoming more so, but I do think it’s one of the great achievements of the world, that we have a humanitarian system that delivers aid in incredibly difficult situations and saves many, many lives. Understanding how that system functions in reality and being part of it has been really, really important to me. Perhaps the most important thing is that collective learning is the key. The most successful changes and improvements I have seen come about by learning and working together.

I’ve also learned a lot about human nature, about people and what makes them tick. Speaking as someone in my age group, now over 60, I’ve learned things about generational differences. It’s fascinating to see new generations coming through and the expectations and worldview that they have, which is very different from the one I had at that age.

Most of the things I know now, I’ve learned through my work with ALNAP. It has changed and deepened the way I think. It’s been completely transformational. I don't know if that translates into wisdom, but I know more than I did when I started!

Looking at the future, what three pieces of advice would you give the new Acting Director?

Well, I wouldn't want to give advice unless specifically asked but in general terms I would say number one, trust your instincts. That’s one of the most important things. Continue to check yourself but 99% of the time your instincts are going to take you to the right place.

Number two, I’d go back to my earlier point about ALNAP’s rhythm throughout the year. Don’t worry when things look quiet or there doesn’t seem to be much excitement – that’s natural. Things won’t be brilliant all the time, life can be messy, but when you do get messy stuff, there are always opportunities that can emerge. Hang on to that.

Finally, listen to the members. Make sure you understand their priorities and let them guide you in your strategic thinking. Stay in touch. That’s what I would say.

Thank you, John

Thanks, Loreine

Juliet Parker became ALNAP’s new Acting Director on 14 June 2021. John will continue working with ALNAP as a part-time Special Advisor helping to pilot a new leadership structure over the next 12 months.