Draft Paper on Adaptive Management in Oxfam – all comments welcome

May 23, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

With a few important exceptions, large international NGOs have been pretty absent from the global conversation about ‘Doing complexity signDevelopment Differently’, but are they doing it anyway and just skipping the meetings?

To find out, a group of LSE Masters Students analysed a bunch of case studies of Oxfam programmes claiming to pursue ‘adaptive management’ approaches. Their report is so interesting that we want to publish it, but first we’re inviting you to comment on their draft, here. Deadline for comments 16th June to  g.maneo[at]lse.ac.uk.

The students – Annika Schlingheider, Erica Pellfolk, Gabriele Maneo, and Harsh Desai – analysed seven Oxfam programmes, along with other examples from across the aid business. Here’s the exec sum:

Adaptive management is at the heart of ‘doing development differently’. Whether it is ‘here to stay’ depends on how much it is mainstreamed into existing development programming, especially planning, monitoring, evaluation, and learning (PMEL) cycles. In this report, we find that mainstreaming adaptive management in PMEL involves three strategies: (1) planning for flexibility; (2) developing locally-owned M&E; and (3) creating an enabling environment for learning. Adopting these strategies AM fig 1contributes to virtuous cycles of PMEL.

Oxfam GB has a broad impact and has long been committed to flexible programming. We thus identify and assess examples of adaptive management within Oxfam’s PMEL frameworks, illustrating enablers and barriers in seven Oxfam programmes. We also showcase examples in Mercy Corps, the World Bank, DFID, and Care International. In doing so, we hope to inform adaptive approaches for PMEL and help practitioners be better equipped to address modern, complex challenges.


Plan for Flexibility Experiment with evolutionary approaches. When outcomes are unclear, implementing parallel pilots may help fine-tune programme design. Though this can be time- and resource-intensive, deliberations that align stakeholder understandings and promote buy-in can offset downsides (e.g. resource-drain) of trial-and-error approaches.

  • Negotiate flexible funding. Sharing of budget targets, setting up centralised ‘rainy day’ funds for need-based adjustments, and innovating PbR contracts by including early grant funding are three strategies to create conditions for adaptation. If donors are reluctant, inviting them to on-site visits and learning events can familiarise them with programmes, build trust-based relationships, and improve chances for flexible funding arrangements. Training staff to understand flexible budgets is key to such approaches.
  • Design adaptive logframes and contracts. Logframes are important tools for accountability but often create path dependency. Though donors are interested in adaptive arrangements, they may lack the capacity or knowledge to create them. Negotiating broad-but-defined indicators and incorporating room for adjustments can help build this capacity and prevent lock-in amid changing circumstances. If donors resist adaptive frameworks, it may help to communicate how building-in flexibility during planning can offset the transaction costs of adjusting during implementation.

Develop Locally-owned M&E

  • Invest in training. Broadening data literacy among country staff allows burden-sharing for M&E and improves capacity to collect timely data. Building capacity is costly initially but can prevent overburdening M&E staff down the road.
  • Improve partner selection strategies. Selecting partners that are aligned in mandates and resources can (a) help compensate for resource shortages; (b) encourage sensitivity to context; (c) strategically broaden an organisation’s field networks; and (d) align incentives for sustained engagement and communication. It can also create an ‘institutional legacy’ of a programme that enables its long-term resilience.
  • Foster bottom-up decision-making and data-collection. Encouraging bottom-up tools and approaches (e.g. the Concept Note System and steering committees) can help foster feedback and delegate decisions to local staff and communities. Not only does this reduce transaction costs of top-down management, but it also promotes locally-responsive solutions.

Create an Enabling Environment for Learning

  • Facilitate communication between country offices. Relying too much on HQ to broker communication can create information siloes. Country staff can take ownership of this process by initiating dialogue with other country offices, especially through events or on-site visits. This has the added benefit of creating alternative sources of institutional memory within the organisation.
  • Face-to-face dialogue is key. Though webinars and reports are helpful conversation-starters, nothing beats face-to-face communication via learning events, workshops, and in-person visits. Setting aside funding – whether through centralised funds or integrating it into overhead costs – is a first step to mobilise momentum for such events. By creating room for discussions, they allow staff to reflect upon and internalise lessons.
  • Shift mindsets, not just practices. Being adaptive is intimidating. Investing in coaching and mentoring, and prioritising learning and reflection among younger staff, helps overcome mental barriers to adopting adaptive approaches. Despite high up-front costs, such strategies build organisational culture and resilience for adaptive management.

And here are the case studies.

Within Oxfam

Chukua Hatua(DFID) A governance programme to strengthen civil society in Tanzania.
A multi-country programme (MCP) to promote gender-inclusive agri-business in South East Asia.
A MCP in eight countries to support rights-based approaches to health and education for citizens.
A programme in Bangladesh to support economic empowerment, adaptation to climate change, leadership, and learning.
South Caucasus
(European Commission)
A programme in Georgia and Armenia to foster farmers’ rights and promote food security.
A programme in the DRC and Kenya to provide sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene to citizens.
A MCP in Afghanistan, Occupied Palestinian Territories/Israel, South Sudan, and the DRC to promote accountable governance by building civil society capacity.

Outside Oxfam

LASER | KPMG & LDP(DFID) A MCP to strengthen legal and judicial capacity and improve the investment climate in eight countries.
IGP-PSCM | World Bank(World Bank) A programme in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to improve governance in the pharmaceutical sector and broaden access to medicine.
SOMGEP | CARE(DFID) A programme in Somalia to improve access to and shift norms regarding girls’ education.
PRIME | Mercy Corps(USAID) A programme in Ethiopia to broaden pastoralist market integration and improve climate change resilience

Over to you…..