Second (and Third) Thoughts on Adaptive Management and Thinking and Working Politically

April 6, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Going into self-doubt mode for the rest of this week, on the feasibility and impact of the ‘second orthodoxy’.

Students can be great at pointing out the contradictions in your thinking and this year’s LSE cohort seem particularly good at it. A recent set of student-led seminars focussed on Adaptive Management and Thinking and Working Politically (AM/TWP) and connected a few dots in new ways (for me at least). They also fed into some of my doubts, further fuelled by Graham Teskey’s recent Eeyore-ish take.

What about power? slide

First, the link to power: although what Graham calls ‘the second orthodoxy’ holds that aid decisions need to be made by national staff and partners, not expats or distant bureaucrats in head office, the students pointed out that all this thinking has so far been relentlessly Northern – there is no crowd of developing country aid workers marching on HQ chanting ‘what do we want – Adaptive Management!’.

In fact it’s worse than that. I am still haunted by a conversation with a veteran TWP-er from Nigeria who after one of my presentations said (I paraphrase) – ‘ah, I see, so you’ve taken all our experience, couched it in new language and jargon, and now we have to relearn it!’. Ouch.

Second, the link to systems: A few years ago, I wrote a paper with an outstandingly dull title: Theories of Change for Promoting Empowerment and Accountability in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Settings. Racy, eh? It argued that donor theories of change largely fall into two camps – ‘do more’ and ‘do less’. The ‘do more’ camp, which includes most of the AM/TWP crew, argue for diving into trying to understand local context, through a combination of political economy analysis and listening to local staff and partners, and then using lots of smart methods to respond, adapt and respond again in an effort to bring about change. These are my guys.

The ‘do less’ camp say ‘who are you trying to kid?’ Contexts are too complex, opaque for outsiders, or even insiders, to fully understand. Forget all your fancy analyses and theories of change, let alone ‘picking winners’ and think about systems – how do you build resilience, encourage new possibilities? That can mean everything from strengthening property rights to basic literacy and health to better broadband – then leave local people to come up with stuff that you had never imagined.

My problem is that I’m fascinated by the first approach (hence all those papers and blogs on adaptive management), and the second group tend to be a bit too laissez faire, ‘leave it to the wonders of the market’ for my taste. But they (gulp) may just have a stronger argument.

Third, fragility. Even when AM/TWP projects have got off the ground and started to deliver results, with a few notable exceptions, they have been vulnerable to staff or ministerial turnover in the donors, or other events that come along and trigger a rush back to the safety of business-as-usual.

Fourth, placing AM/TWP in its historical context. This may have already occurred to people, but my students got me thinking about a question that is always worth asking – why now? Back in the 2000s, Ros Eyben was pointing out that aid workers routinely lived a double life – on the ground, they improvised, backed their best guesses, and generally ‘thought and worked politically’. They then airbrushed all the mess out of their reports to HQ, turning them into neat linear chains of planning and execution to keep their bosses happy.

Going back even further, my old boss at Oxfam, Mark Goldring, recalls fondly how as Oxfam Country Director, he could ‘turn off the telex’ (look it up, if that word means nothing to you) and be left to make his own decisions, free of any communications from HQ.

Two things have changed: the growing cult of compliance, results and risk minimization (no-one tries to manage risk, only to eliminate it), and the IT-enabled death of distance, which means that your boss is pretty much in permanent residence on your shoulder, wherever you are working.

Lack of detail

So maybe AM/TWP is defensive, a way to try and win back the ground that was lost through these twin forces? That would at least explain why some of the old guard say ‘meh, nothing new here’.

Finally, what happens when it becomes A Thing. The aid business is a maelstrom of ‘new’ ideas (often old wine in new bottles, it’s true). Fads, fuzzwords and buzzwords come and go at a dizzying rate, fuelled by thinktanks and policy entrepreneurs eager to make their mark (and yes, I guess I’m part of the problem – back to the Nigeria conversation). If you clamber your way to the top of the intellectual heap, what awaits you? On the plus side, adoption – people take your idea, try to put it into practice, then you can learn from all the experiences and hopefully, aid programmes have more impact.

The downside is dilution – while the first cohort of early adopters are passionate and committed, if your idea ‘cuts through’, the next lot just want to know what to do, what template to fill in, what ‘toolkit’ to use. And those seeking funding will start ‘adaptive washing’ – sprinkling the language over their bid documents to show they are fully up with the latest thinking. All very northern and exclusive, and either annoying or baffling to those on the ground actually trying to make change happen (as I found in my conversations with governance activists in Myanmar, who basically wanted to be protected from all this intellectualising, even as they were doing adaptive management/TWP quite brilliantly).

A straw to clutch at? The Hype Cycle – it feels like we are heading downward to the ‘trough of disillusionment’ form the initial peak of ‘inflated expectations’, but we will bounce back to something more sustained, that becomes a permanent feature of the aid landscape.

Hype cycle

Fun game for geeks – why not locate all the aid/development fads from last decade on the hype curve – microfinance, cash transfers, resilience, nexus, payment by results, impact bonds etc etc etc. Your call whether to do it for inner circle afficianados or sector at large (which usually lags by a few years). Any offers?