There are many papers which make a convincing case for adaptive programming. Here’s my top 5:
Escaping capability traps through problem-driven iterative adaptation (Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock, 2012)
Getting real about politics: from thinking politically to working differently (Rocha Menocal, 2014)
Development entrepreneurship: how donors and leaders can foster institutional change (Faustino and Booth, 2014)
Building a global learning alliance for adaptive management (Wild and Ramalingam, 2018)
The theoretical case is clear; traditional approaches generally fail to tackle complex (or wicked) problems. More problem-driven, politically-smart, locally-led, and adaptive programming offers a potential alternative.
By now, there’s a relatively large body of evidence on adaptive programming. ODI’s Adaptive Development Zotero features 112 cases (or rather, documents) between 2006 and 2022. Consider that systematic reviews tend to make generalised (but potentially credible) statements based on a few dozen cases (sometimes less). However, we shouldn’t just cherry pick our favourite cases of success.
There are some good reviews assessing between a handful and thousands of development projects. Here’s my top 10 recommendations:
Adapting aid: lessons from six case studies (Beloe, Hemberger, and Proud, 2016)
From silos to synergy: learning from politically informed, gender aware programs (Derbyshire, Sio, Gibson, Hudson, and Roche, 2018)
Thinking and working politically: learning from practice. overview to special issue (McCulloch and Piron, 2019)
What does the evidence tell us about ‘thinking and working politically’ in development assistance? (Dasandi, Laws, Marquette, and Robinson, 2019)
Implementing adaptive approaches in real world scenarios: a Nigeria case study, with lessons for theory and practice (Bridges and Woolcock, 2019)
PFM reform through PDIA: what works and when it works (Harris and Lawson, 2022)
There are, of course, many more examples that I could have included from other large INGOs or private sector organisations (e.g., Chemonics, Palladium, DAI) — see here, for a position paper on Doing Development Differently (remember that?) from World Vision, IRC, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, and CARE written by Dave Algoso. I think it’s fair to say that adaptive management is becoming a new orthodoxy for large international development organisations, at least in the creative corners of their programming (before it all gets relabelled as design thinking).
There are also now a few good longitudinal studies which show that adaptive management can achieve effects over the medium-term:
Governance for growth in Vanuatu: review of a decade of thinking and working politically (Tilley and Hadley, 2017)
Thinking and working politically in development: coalitions for change in the Philippines (Sidel and Faustino, 2019)
Twenty years of UK governance programmes in Nigeria: achievements, challenges, lessons and implications for future support (Piron, Cummings, Williams, Derbyshire, and Hadley, 2021)
The conclusion is not that adaptive management is a magic bullet, but there is now a large body of evidence that merits policymakers’ consideration.
It’s been argued that the evidence base is too dependent on potentially biased, self-selected case studies. I think this is certainly fair criticism during the peak of inflated expectations in 2016, but this is less true today, and study quality has definitely improved in recent years. Dasandi et al. (2019) further argued that interviews, documentary analysis, and action research are intrinsically ‘(in)appropriate for establishing causal explanations.’ Chris Roche, Marta Schaaf, Sue Cant and I explain why this is misguided methodological criticism. Case-based approaches are a far better fit for adaptive programming than experimental methods, and it’s high time we reappraised the absurd straightjacket of randomista rigour.
As a critical appraisal, I’m concerned by the over-representation of publications commissioned by DFID/FCDO about themselves, perhaps too many of which were produced by my previous employer, ODI. Far too much of the evidence comes from Nigeria, and too many publications were written by people who look and sound like me. Nonetheless, the case for adaptive management is certainly defensible.
For those that are interested, there are also some good (but now rather out-of-date) studies on what donors learned from doing adaptive programming:
Doing development differently at the World Bank: updating the plumbing to fit the architecture (Bain, Booth, and Wild, 2016)
Putting theory into practice: how DFID is doing development differently (Wild, Booth, and Valters, 2017)
Doing adaptive management at SIDA (Ruffer, Bailey, Dalhgren, Spaven, and Winters, 2018)
Of course, there is much more that can be done.
We could do with a “state of evidence study on adaptive programming” (a synthesis of syntheses) detailing what we know about the effectiveness of politically-smart, locally-led, and adaptive approaches in different contexts (are there differences between the findings on adaptive management and TWP, for example?). There’s no denying this is difficult (and politically contentious job), but I think it’s time.
It would also be interesting to develop cases of where adaptive approaches may have averted failure (if indeed they really have), and even to estimate the potential savings to make a value for money argument for or against adaptive programming. After all, some donors only really care about the cost-benefit analysis.
We could benefit from some more self-critical accounts of when, where, and why adaptive approaches have failed because they poorly implemented or were perhaps the wrong approach to take in context. The new orthodoxy has plenty of positive bias, and it’s time we drank some of our own medicine lecturing others on the importance of failure.
It might also be helpful to have a comparative analysis of the uptake of adaptive management in donor agencies and to take the temperature today in the shadow of Trump, Morrison, Brexit, COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, etc. This would offer a more sober assessment of the potential for institutionalisation in varied political contexts.
And, we can certainly make a far clearer link to the localisation agenda. We ought to have done this long ago. It’s pretty embarrassing that so little has been done.
For me, the issue of the day is no longer whether there is any credible evidence that adaptive programming can work and that it can merit the investment. Instead, it’s about effectively marshalling contextually relevant evidence, and better understanding how to prompt some degree adaptive “tolerance” inside organisations beyond innovators and early adopters.
I wrote this blog with a view to focus on the evidence. But I’ll say it again that evidence is only a (small) part of any future story of institutionalisation. At the end of the day, whether any of this will stick relies more on how good thinking and working politically folks are at actually thinking and working politically.
Thanks to Alan Hudson, Kathy Bain, and Emma Proud for suggestions, particularly for some of the recommendations on what is still to be done.