Why are lessons spurned, rather than learned?

Linked with our presentation of Thomas G. Weiss – USA.

By Thomas G. Weiss (1) (August 2002) – The establishment of “lessons-learned” units was part of a growing cottage industry in the 1990s within the United Nations (UN), and elsewhere. For instance, both the Department of Peace-keeping Operations (DPKO) as well as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA, which was formerly DHA, Department of Humanitarian Affairs) established them as a result of operational problems in responding to civil wars.

Academics and policy analysts threw themselves enthusiastically into the intellectual fray as governments and foundations sponsored research about international responses to the complex emergencies of the 1990s. The key-worded bibliography from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), for example, contains some 2,200 entries in English from the last decade. (2) Perhaps the most extravagant illustration of the analytical frenzy was the multi-donor evaluation of Rwanda said to cost several million dollars. (3)

Nonetheless, the key question remains: Have any key lessons actually been learned?

Any military historian anxious to avoid fighting the last war knows that lessons are difficult enough to identify in the first place. Political, temporal, military, strategic, and geographic translations from one situation to another are methodologically arduous and operationally problematic.

Every crisis is not sui generis, as many scholars claim; and lessons from one context can be applied elsewhere. However, there are genuine and severe limits to comparisons across cases of international responses to complex emergencies. In thinking merely of temporal dimensions, for instance, making use of cases of intervention during the Cold War have little contemporary operational significance. And even trying to apply lessons from cases between 1990 and the events in October 1993 in Mogadishu are of extremely limited utility when attempting to gauge the willingness of the United States (U.S.)-the remaining military superpower whose participation is essential-and other countries to run risks in today’s Congo, even after Rwanda’s genocide.

This crucial temporal dimension is often ignored by public policy analysts. But there is an even more important methodological explanation that is often overlooked in evaluations of the United Nations system. Indications of problems and causes are a necessary but quite insufficient approach without concrete implementation measures that actually rectify diagnosed problems.

Three stages of individual and organizational learning are commonplace in the business literature. The first is identification, when problems are observed and data collected. The second is diagnosis, when information is analyzed and underlying beliefs questioned. And the third is implementation, when revised policies and procedures are actually institutionalized and public and bureaucratic support is mobilized on behalf of changes.

However, the common analytical approach of the private sector too rarely penetrate analyses of international organizations. Scholars and practitioners who are members of the international conference circuit frequently employ the conventional vocabulary of “lessons learned,” but decision-makers and bureaucrats too rarely take steps to correct their courses.

The third step in learning is missing. Lessons are usually identified by people who are not responsible for changing the rules. And decision-makers rarely understand the details and policy implications of major studies. In my view, this is the single-most important overlooked factor that leads to overly optimistic reactions to independent as well as internal evaluations.

With respect to overall lessons, for instance, have governments and agencies really learned from efforts in Bosnia that half-hearted or symbolic military action may be as bad or worse than no action at all? Have they actually learned that humanitarian gestures cannot replace substantial commitments? If so, how can one explain the lack of a rapid reaction capability and the absence of robust military action in Kosovo in 1998? Or in Rwanda in 1994? Or in the Great Lakes in almost every year since? Clearly, the answer is “no” to all of these questions.

Why is there a gap between lessons compiled and actually learned, between what most evaluators would label “rhetoric” and “reality”? Cynics would simply point to hypocrisy and leave it at that. Sometimes they are right, but often there are more complex reasons lurking under the surface. It goes without saying that governments and agencies are not monoliths, but we often overlook this reality when examining the impact of applied research findings. Those who conduct evaluations, draft resolutions, and make statements usually have not secured political backing. Competing interests dominate bureaucratic decision-making. Even when policy changes to reflect lessons appear to have been agreed in headquarters, it can prove extremely difficult to translate them into practice on the ground.

To the extent that lessons remain relegated to file-drawers, coffee tables, or book jackets, the concept of learning is perverted. It would be more accurate to speak of “lessons spurned.” Alex de Waal, one of the most strident critics of international aid and humanitarian agencies, points to a puzzling contemporary paradox. The international system “appears to have an extraordinary capacity to absorb criticism, not reform itself, and yet emerge strengthened.” (4)

Academic and policy analysts should be humbled about how little the system of international organizations has changed over the 1990s as a result of our analyses. Governments should be aware of the limits of analysis and evaluation without the political will to act on the lessons.


(1) Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, where he is also co-director of the United Nations Intellectual History Project and editor of Global Governance. In 2000-2001 he served as research director of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

(2) Thomas G. Weiss and Don Hubert, The Responsibility to Protect: Research, Bibliography, and Background (Ottawa: International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001), pp. 223-336.

(3) Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience (Copenhagen: Odense, 1996), 5 volumes.

(4) Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1997), p. vi.

Comments are closed.