What can NGOs/others learn from DFID’s shift to ‘adaptive development’?

July 23, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Got back from holiday last week and went straight into a discussion with NGOs and thinktanks on Adaptation2‘adaptive development’. Really interesting for several reasons:

I realized there’s a bunch of civil society people (100 people at the seminar, plus 50 online) thinking along parallel lines to donors and academics in the Thinking and Working Politically and Doing Development Differently initiatives, but currently very little cross over. Why is that? I think it’s partly down to being in separate networks, partly scale – big donor money v small NGO projects, partly language (NGOs don’t have much time for all that ‘political settlements’ type jargon) and partly politics/tone –  TWP/DDD conversations feel very top down to most NGO types. But the overlap remains huge, and there are big missed opportunities in not bringing the two together. Any volunteers?

Some intriguing thoughts from Pete Vowles, who seems to be doing fantastic work deep in the bowels of DFID. He reckons that the ‘SMART rules’ he helped devise have largely removed the formal barriers to adaptive working, and what remains are the informal barriers, including ‘institutional optimism’, the cultural impossibility of saying ‘we don’t know’ while simultaneously asking for/committing funding, and the fact that people invariably ask for guidance, which can all too easily turn into the next set of tickboxes.

From his position as DFID’s ‘Head of Programme Delivery’, Pete is amassing some interesting first hand experience and great new ideas of what encourages flexible/adaptive programming:

adaptive-plan‘Low ambition logframes’ can often lead to better relationships and partnerships than high ambition ones. In the latter, the moment something ‘goes red’ (i.e. targets are missed), the funders jump in, people get defensive, and we’re back to the old ways of working. Maybe the logframe is better seen as a minimum, providing insurance for funders and a foundation for adaptive, flexible work, rather than a maximum?

DFID is testing different approaches to what this all means in practice, including one nice example  of a DFID programme where the team  agreed 15 outputs, and then said ‘we’ll pay the partner for delivering any four of them’ in explicit recognition of the different directions the programme could go.

Elsewhere in government (eg around the construction of Heathrow Terminal 5), he’s seen task team approaches where you don’t even know who works for who. What if, say, donors, CSOs and government put together a task team on civilian protection in Eastern DRC, seconded staff, allocated funds and essentially set up a temporary organization? It could even be spun off as a new body with a small endowment if it shows particular promise.

If local knowledge is paramount, as all the TWP/DDD thinking suggests, it’s no good wringing our hands about staff turnover – let’s taken it as a given and think laterally. What about having as standard a panel of local experts (either in country, or with long term engagement there), who act as an institutional memory for amnesiac aid organizations?

The ensuing NGO examples and conversation worried me a bit. I can already see us saying (with some justification) ‘but we’ve always done adaptive development’, and then just trotting out our usual Potemkin Programmes. We need to be pushed hard to identify what is new and what isn’t in all this, and then to try out some new approaches, such as those Pete was talking about. This is where funders and researchers could really help – identify a few countries/sectors where there is buy in from donor national offices, INGOs and national organizations, maybe adopt a task team approach, and monitor carefully what happens next.

We could also take a dose of our own medicine. If we think positive deviance is the way to go, then let’s start by

Start by studying the starred bit

Start by studying the starred bit

taking the ‘we’ve been doing this for decades’ community seriously – identify the most adaptive outliers, both in terms of aid programmes, but also countries, communities etc, study them, and see what we can learn. Where are poor communities already particularly resilient to climate change? Has anyone done that?

And the same goes for collaboration – if the lesson of adaptive development is quick, intelligent context and power analysis, but then get stuck in and learn by doing/adapt as you go along, surely the same goes for our attempts to get better at it. Enough talk – we need to set up some experiments and start learning.

As for my input, I did my standard ‘Fit for the Future’ presentation – here’s my talking points (One Pager), focussing on:

  • Who is ‘we’: Relinquishing Control and Porous Boundaries
  • How do ‘we’ think and act? Learn to Dance with the System
  • Imagine there’s no Projects and no ‘development issues’ too
  • What’s stopping us?

Let me know if you want a post fleshing that out, or a 10m video rant instead