Juliet Parker: ‘It’s about recognising and maintaining the strong legacy that ALNAP has, then thinking about how we build on that as the world moves on.’

15 Oct 2021

Earlier this year, Juliet Parker became Acting Director of ALNAP. A few months into the role, she spoke to network members Bernard Vicary (Senior Director of Strategy, Quality and Learning at the American Red Cross) and Manu Gupta (Co-Founder of SEEDS India) about what led her to the position, what’s next for the Secretariat and ALNAP’s role in learning.

MANU: Juliet, you’ve been in this role for some time now, right?

JULIET: That’s right. I joined ALNAP last September then the leadership changed in June. Actually, it’s been a perfect way to do it because John [Mitchell] is still here as Special Advisor so things haven’t changed too much – just a slight shift in emphasis and some responsibilities.

MANU: Yes, it’s just that you have to sign more cheques now!

JULIET: That’s exactly right! I do the administration now and John has managed to get all that off his plate. He’s made a smart move.

BERNARD: Welcome to leadership!

MANU: Juliet, you’ve been at ALNAP for a year now - a rather unusual year for the world. Can you share two or three highlights from this first year?

I always worked in INGOs and when you work in one part of the sector for so long you get tunnel vision. At ALNAP, there’s the opportunity to take a step back, to have that whole sector view, and to gain a better understanding of the range of perspectives involved – it’s given me quite a different view of the sector.

Another highlight is more internal. ALNAP has had a quiet couple of years with a lot of staff changes, then the pandemic changed a lot about how we worked. It’s been fun to bring in a new team and to onboard a bunch of fresh perspectives and experiences. The leadership transition has also given us the opportunity to think about the things that have worked well so far and what the next steps are – it’s been exciting.

Thirdly, I’ve really enjoyed working with John! He is so embedded in ALNAP and ALNAP’s way of thinking. I’ve come from the INGO focus on ‘delivery, delivery, delivery, contracts, influence, advocacy!’ so to take time to really absorb a different, more reflective mindset has been really valuable.

BERNARD: I’m interested to hear a bit about your story and what motivated you to be in this role at ALNAP?

This feels like I’m in a job interview! ‘So why do you want the post?’

My background is 20 years in INGO’s, primarily working with local organisations and partnerships. I was with Christian Aid for a very long time then more recently with Action Against Hunger, which involved more of the advocacy, influencing and donor relations slant.

In this sector, we put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves for delivery and that squashes any space for reflection. You hear people say ‘I feel like a cog in the system’ or ‘I've got questions about the system’. This job came up and its purpose is to step back and reflect on what’s working and what’s not working and bring people in around that conversation. I think protecting and championing that space for reflection is so important, but we need to think carefully about how ALNAP can add value to a sector that’s so delivery-focused and where people work in highly pressured environments and don’t necessarily have time to step back and reflect. I hope that is a useful perspective that I can bring to ALNAP.

MANU: You’ve touched on how ALNAP looked to you from the outside, so how does it feel being inside?

Years ago when I first heard about ALNAP I remember being really struck by the story of its origins - this need for the sector to coordinate and work together better, so we wouldn’t make the same mistakes time and time again. From the inside, that definitely resonates.  There is a very clear core mandate that hasn’t shifted over time and a focus on ‘adding value’ – that always comes out in the language of the staff.

If I’m honest, from the outside, when we were trying to secure contracts, build relationships, and work with local governments I would see some of ALNAP’s research topics and think ‘That must be important to someone, but it doesn’t resonate with my evidence gaps!’ It looked a little bit removed from the practical realities of what we were trying to do, but that is something I’ve re-thought now.

We do deliver very practical practitioner-focused products like the lessons papers, but I’ve also realised there is a need for those more intellectual research topics. We need to connect them better, though, and make them more meaningful to a broader range of actors across the world.

BERNARD: That’s sort of a good segway… Over the past 18 months, the pandemic has shifted the meaning of ‘global’. How is ALNAP going to leverage that?

Being a global network is inherent in our governance structure and membership makeup, but the realities of the pandemic have pushed us in a healthy way. Traditionally we’ve been quite dependent on bringing together the different constituencies through in-person meetings – our annual meeting has always been in person.

In some ways, we’ve lost a lot of that contact and the value of face-to-face interactions, just as everybody else has, but what we’ve gained is the potential to bring together a much wider representation of the sector. Those in-person meetings had an element of exclusivity. Not everyone could attend, not everyone was invited or had the contact or the resources or means to join, so suddenly we have the potential for much richer, more inclusive and potentially more valuable conversation. 

It's made us think about whose evidence gaps we’re addressing, whose knowledge we are including in the discussion, and how we support a much broader diversity of voices joining the conversation!

MANU: Hopefully soon we will get to meet in person! And especially because next year is ALNAP’s 25th birthday – what are your plans?

We want to use the 25th anniversary to shout about and champion learning, to look at the sector as a whole and understand what the last 25 years tell us about how the sector learns most effectively, when it doesn't and how we can engage different actors around this.

We’re in a time when levels of humanitarian need outstrip resources by a more significant margin than I can remember. We know this gap is increasing and as a sector we’re going to have to use every resource we have to its best possible effect. We can only do that by making sure we learn from our collective experiences then use that learning to effect change in our approaches and decisions.

We feel there are quite a lot of assumptions about how learning happens, we want to question those and we need a clearer framework to have those discussions. We are developing new research on this.

BERNARD: And how will ALNAP look on its 30th anniversary? What do you think will be different?

This is the hardest question!

It’s about recognising and maintaining the strong legacy that ALNAP has, of high-quality research, convening power, neutrality, and anticipation of evidence gaps, then thinking about how we build on that as the world moves on. Being adaptable to change and confident about our ability to add value will mean questioning a few areas.

We have to think carefully about ALNAP’s role in supporting the utilisation of learning to effect change, which is extremely complex but it’s an integral question. We also need to focus on cracking some of the old nuts that continually appear in our top 3 or 4 evaluation findings. If there was a new emergency next week, we could probably anticipate the top findings that will come from that evaluation, because they will be the same as previous ones. I would hope that we can use our convening mandate and evidence base to make some progress on those.

I would hope by a future anniversary, we will have people sat across the world who represent a broader range of perspectives and can better connect us to the conversations that are going on in different localities. 

From conversations with our members, I know they want us to work more on developing the dynamism of the network. Organisations want to be more connected to the learning of other organisations, particularly across the constituencies. We also need to think about the shift in the diversity of voices within the sector. There are areas of our membership where we don't have the level of representation that we might want, so we have to ask how we respond to that.

Finally, we are a global network and our Secretariat should be global.  I would hope by a future anniversary, we will have people sat across the world who are better able to represent a broader range of perspectives and opinions but also who can better connect us to the conversations that are going on in different localities. Otherwise, we risk sitting in an echo chamber.

MANU: As you say, the opportunities and expectations of members really shape ALNAP’s meaning and mandate. How do you balance ALNAP’s role between serving the needs of the membership and the needs of the sector as a whole?

ALNAP was created for the sector, so we definitely serve it. Our members enable us to identify, address and champion the learning that will help the sector to do better. From conversations with members, I see that their engagement is in large part driven by their belief in the need for the whole sector to improve and learn, and with the existence of ALNAP that journey will continue over time.

BERNARD: Is the sector setting the learning agenda? Or is the Secretariat setting the learning agenda?

The Secretariat is proposing a learning agenda based on its understanding of the needs, expectations and priorities of its members as representatives of the sector, but there are a million challenges in that. For example, ALNAP comes from a strong M&E legacy, so many of our contacts in member organisations come from the monitoring and evaluation side – we have really good conversations and relationships here but it brings up questions like how do we better engage people from a range of functionalities? How do we pick the learning questions and priorities that make the most difference? How do we balance the different learning needs of different members and how do we manage the conversation in a way that gives everybody an equal voice? This last question is especially important because we’re seen as a northern institution, that is an important part of our heritage and who we are but we must be actively conscious of it when we're thinking about ALNAP's role in the sector.

MANU: Over the pandemic, a lot of things have moved online, which has freed up a lot of time otherwise spent on field visits and travel. With that, there’s been an explosion of knowledge and learning. How does ALNAP stay relevant alongside knowledge institutions that are more virtual than the legacy ALNAP carries?

This is also where we have to get the balance between the longevity and stability of ALNAP and looking to a new horizon. The question is ‘What is not being done that ALNAP could usefully do?’ I think the wealth and visibility of knowledge initiatives and institutions is absolutely brilliant, but there is still a capacity challenge for people, especially those closest to project delivery and their ability to engage and use that information and knowledge. We need to think seriously about how we support the sector in adapting and changing in response to learning, rather than just identifying the learning and evidence. I think that’s one key thing.

BERNARD: You said earlier that working with John has been one of your highlights. What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from him?

I hadn’t worked for a network before so I’ve learned how to value the membership and see it as one of our biggest assets. From the outside, I hadn’t picked up on ALNAP’s impartiality, but it’s really evident from the inside that ALNAP’s only agenda is ‘learning is important’. I’ve learned to adjust my language and my expectations and to value that impartial role instead of always campaigning and lobbying for something as I did when working in INGOs.

I’ve also learned the value of stability, longevity, and slow incremental growth that responds to the demands and expectations of the membership. As a sector, we are extremely tough on ourselves but the State of the Humanitarian System report shows a functioning sector that is delivering effective humanitarian assistance to a massive proportion of the world’s most vulnerable people. There’s a lot of stuff that we need to improve on but the system is doing an effective job in many, many places and is actually improving incrementally over time. That is a good reminder that I’ve picked up from John!

BERNARD: Thanks, Juliet. I could talk for hours about this. Our discussion has caused me to reflect even on my own practice and some of the challenges we have about how to maintain learning space. Thanks for the opportunity to do this. It was really fun!

MANU: I really enjoyed today’s conversation and I do see in you a great leader. A very good transition, I must say.

JULIET: Thank you both very much for being lovely interviewers. I was a bit nervous, but I’ve really enjoyed it!

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