How do NGO staff and partners experience Adaptive Programming? Some impressive (and positive) new research

April 27, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Still trying to recover from my minor dark night of the soul (more like a dark evening, really) on Adaptive Management, I was heartened by a new study from Christian Aid Ireland (CAI). The Difference Learning Makes: Factors that enable or inhibit adaptive programming is excellent,: well-written, encouraging, and probably warrants several posts. But attention spans being what they are, I’ll try and give you the gist in one.

CAI has been using a deliberate adaptive approach across its programmes since 2019, after being convinced by a 2018 paper (reviewed here) to give it a go. Here’s the relevant paras from the executive summary:

‘This study has found evidence and multiple examples that show adaptive programming contributed to better development outcomes. The main reasons cited were that these were made possible both from improvements to programming strategies based on proactive reflection and learning, as well as those that stem from the reactive capacity of adaptive programmes to change course in response to unanticipated changes in operating conditions.

This study found that adaptive programming has enabled better development practice where organisations are enhancing their skills to better respond and be flexible to contextual challenges. 72% of partners surveyed described adaptive programming as the most useful approach to programme management that they have used. The programme approach has meant that CA and partner staff were better able to explore the significance of change in the context and their contributions to them. It also enabled spaces for meaningful engagement with communities in learning and programme planning processes and encouraged opportunities for experimentation in programming.

The study also found that adaptive programming has supported flexible delivery. This led to better outcomes that would not have been possible were the programme not able to make flexible adjustments.

The main focus has been the analysis of nine factors that can determine the effectiveness and impact (or otherwise) of using an adaptive approach, flagging important issues for understanding. These factors are identified as: 1) Leadership; 2) Organisational culture; 3) Conceptual understanding; 4) Staff capacities; 5) Partnership approaches; 6) Participation; 7) Methods and tools; 8) Administrative procedures; and 9) The operating context.

Together these can provide an analytical framework for assessing an organisation’s ‘adaptive scope’, which can be used as a tool for better understanding an organisation’s potential to generate improved development outcomes via adaptive programming and how to strengthen them.

The study concludes with several recommendations for CA Ireland, all of which have relevance for a broader community of donors and implementing organisations interested in the potential of adaptive programming.’

And some gold dust examples from the main report:

‘Sierra Leone: Several iterations of strategy testing have led to improved measures for mitigating conflict between cattle herders and crop farmers. Reflecting on the failure of traditional conflict resolution methods led by Paramount Chiefs to stem the violence, the partner organisation, with representatives of farmers and cattle herders, formed a “cattle settlement committee”, which proposed their own conflict resolution strategy, including enacting a local byelaw to regulate land use. These strategies have led to a reduction in conflict, peaceful cohabitation between the groups, and the scaling up of the initiative into a district-wide byelaw. It has also led to an increase of cultivated land and harvest.

El Salvador: Experience from a partner organisation working on public fiscal transparency demonstrates the value of reflecting on which entry points offer the greatest potential to achieve desired changes. In this case, the partner’s advocacy for national law changes, to enable greater community access to municipal committees that decide on local resource allocation, were not providing the anticipated results. The partner took on board a community member’s advice to shift from a legal strategy to influencing municipal committees directly, following a community consultation. The partner organisation has since been able to broker greater community access to these committees by successfully advocating for changes to their internal regulations.

Angola: Programmes protecting and empowering former street children were repeatedly failing and lacked popular support. Through adaptive learning processes, the partner organisation identified distrust of the programmes for two inter-related reasons: 1) the strong tendencies of the programmes to lead in an authoritarian style, which has been internalised through decades 8 of living under an authoritarian state, and 2) the perception that the support programmes were associated with local and political leaders who misused resources for personal gain and governed through intimidation and violence. Using this learning, implementing partners and affected communities agreed to adopt a non-hierarchical, committee approach to leadership, whereby decisions must be taken collectively. By the end of the latest programming cycle there was a decrease in local incidents of violence and an increase in participation rates in support programmes for former street children.

Zimbabwe: One partner organisation realised during reflection and learning sessions that their focus on training community members as environmental monitors was not working well because of the barriers that community members faced to participation. This exclusion was largely due to gatekeeping by traditional leaders, who sometimes received financial compensation from mining companies. The strategy was adapted to include these leaders in training, who could then hear and be accountable to communities’ perspectives on mining, and contribute to greater buy-in to monitoring efforts. As a result, the level of community participation in environmental monitoring efforts has been much higher.’

There are lots of great quotes from partners and staff, and a neat methodology for disaggregating the factors that enable/inhibit adaptive programming (see graphic). (And yes, lots of pics of people looking at flip charts and post-its – is there really no better way to photograph workshops and participation?)

It’s really very good, and heading straight for my LSE reading list.

April 27, 2022
Duncan Green