Adaptive Management in Myanmar – draft paper on Pyoe Pin for your comments

April 7, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Ok, FP2P hivemind, I want your comments on a draft paper about an iconic Adaptive Management programme, Pyoe Pin in Myanmar. My co-author is Angela Christie. The paper is for the Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research Programme. Here’s the exec sum, and you can download the whole 20-page paper here. 

This paper examines adaptive techniques in aid programming in a fragile, conflict and violence-affected setting, namely Myanmar. A combination of desk review and field research has been used to examine some of the assertions around the adaptive programming approach and to explore if and how adaptive techniques, including rapid learning and planning responses (fast feedback loops and agile programming) are particularly relevant and useful for promoting empowerment and accountability in such ‘messy places’.

‘Pyoe Pin is ready to take a risk, they move fast. Other donors are much more rigid in their country strategies.’ Civil Society Leader

This case study focuses on Pyoe Pin (‘Young Shoots’), a DFID-funded governance programme, which has been running since 2007.  During ten years of extraordinary political and social turbulence, the Pyoe Pin (PP) team and its partners have facilitated social and political change by bringing together coalitions of groups and individuals to address particular issues of social, political, economic or environmental concern. To achieve this, PP supports a flexible number of issue-based programmes (IBPs) currently covering education, health, fisheries, forestry and extractive industries

Our field research focused in particular on the fisheries IBP, which is considered by Pyoe Pin to be ‘one of the first examples of public participation in state-level policy making in Myanmar’. A field visit to talk with officials, local NGOs, politicians and fishing communities added considerable insight and texture to our understanding of how PP works. Our meetings revealed an organization deeply embedded in relationships of trust with ministers, parliamentarians, civil society organizations and fishing communities, and using those trust relationships to facilitate significant progress in fisheries reform, which in turn is leading to widespread improvements in the lives of small-scale fishers.


Our overall conclusion is that the kinds of adaptive approaches pursued by Pyoe Pin can work in fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings, and indeed may be particularly well suited to the volatile, fragmented and unpredictable nature of such places. However, for such approaches to succeed, they need to be applied by individuals with a deep and nuanced understanding of the local context and an instinct for flexible and adaptive decision making. Further, for such individuals to prosper, they need freedom to act on a daily basis while also being supported by longer term cycles of learning and planning.  Achieving the right levels of decision making devolution is not easy and means that authorising teams must sometimes be prepared to swim against the tide of institutions, ideas and interests that shape the aid sector. Thinking about what this means in practice leads us to two main conclusions – and possible next steps for this research:

The first and perhaps most important conclusion from this research is that there is a need to distinguish more clearly between adaptive management (‘everyday PEA’) and adaptive programming (a longer-term process), and ensure that the two are both present and mutually supportive.

Much more attention (and perhaps more research) is needed on how to recruit, incentivise and retain entrepreneurial spirits of the ‘adaptive delivery’ kind we saw in Pyoe Pin – such individuals are born networkers, with a deep instinct for power analysis and grasp of the shifting landscape of opportunities and threats, and the patience and stamina required to get results. We are sceptical that staff steeped in linear thinking and compliance mentalities can be transformed into risk-taking, politically savvy entrepreneurs through a few workshops or a tweak in incentives. Determining who has these skills is an important task for those who would build a team capable of adaptive delivery.

There are some potential shortcomings of Adaptive Delivery that need attention, Pyoe Pin’s focus on ‘getting the right people in the room’ means identifying the powerful players within a previously excluded group, and that risks overlooking marginalised people within such groups – we barely spoke to any women during our visit to the fisheries programme. There is a danger that the win-win perspective involves working with the grain to such an extent that entrenched and excluding norms of behaviour cannot be challenged. Political economy analysis begins at home. PP appears to find it easier to focus some IBPs on specific issues of marginalisation, rather than to mainstream inclusion across all IBPs. For example, on HIV, PP has set up networks for highly marginalised groups –the Sex Worker in Myanmar network – to good effect.

Adaptive approaches also need to guard against the risk of sclerosis, as investments (led by adaptive managers) in acquiring knowledge, experience and relationships can generate their own inertia and unwillingness to pivot towards new opportunities. Thus, there is a place also for adaptive programmers who can introduce mechanisms to guard against thickening arteries, such as regularly thinking about diminishing returns and local ownership and spinning off new initiatives that enjoy the agility and innovation of start-ups.

Research question: in what ways can adaptive delivery and adaptive programming work better together?

Our second main conclusion is that the aid industry – the constellation of donors, consultants, implementing organizations, NGOs etc –  struggles with the requirements of adaptive approaches.

At a crude level, there is little compatibility between adaptive approaches and the pressure for predictability, for risk minimisation and for results (often in the short term) that dominate donor agendas, especially in FCVAS. Even if donors initially ‘get it’, as was the case with DFID’s pioneering work in setting up Pyoe Pin, their own internal volatility (of personnel and priorities) makes it hard for them to maintain the commitment over the timescale necessary to achieve real change in FCVAS. That may be an argument for seeking ways to minimise the impact of donor volatility, for example by using a new funding, monitoring or reporting mechanism to provide adaptive approaches with a bulwark against the shifting tides of the aid business.

In this case, these challenges have not been helped by the fact that Pyoe Pin has struggled to find ways to describe its work that satisfy donors. The subtleties of adaptive delivery – operating below the radar; spotting and reacting to the frown on the face of the minister and the often unpredictable results that this generates – can easily be overlooked or brushed aside in the search for cruder metrics to feed the results/value for money machine linked to achievements predicted within results frameworks.

This is doubly unfortunate because based on this visit, Pyoe Pin has a strong case to make that adaptive approaches can produce impressive results, even within the current institutional constraints. Were it to make this case well, donors would then face a strategic decision over whether to accept higher levels of risk and uncertainty in order to achieve greater results.

Research question: what shifts in the way aid is financed, monitored and reported would make the most meaningful contribution to enabling adaptive delivery and programming, without losing the requirements of accountability?