The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) merger and the future of adaptive programming

August 12, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Ed Laws and Pablo Yanguas

The merger of DFID and the FCO into a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has sent shockwaves through the UK-centred development community, with NGOs and MPs publicly decrying the decision, current and former DFID staff expressing concern and dismay in private and in public, and a generalised sense that, at the very least, things have not been done as well as they should.

For those of us involved in trying to get DFID to act more adaptively and politically smart, the merger poses questions about the sustainability of our advocacy so far, and what the brave new world of British aid will mean for our champions and coalitions. In this post, we offer one interpretation of what comes next, based on our experiences in agenda-setting and delivery programmes.

The merger: Warning signs and silver linings

Like many in the community, we have reacted to the merger with some trepidation, for reasons to do more with how it is being orchestrated than what the end result may be.

Culturally, we see the merger as an expression of the broader political ideology of ‘British exceptionalism’, which may not leave much room for acknowledging uncertainty and complexity. An adaptative mindset, by contrast, begins from a place of epistemic humility, and it is yet to be seen whether such humility will be welcome in the organisational culture and professional incentives of the new department.

Some of the best examples of adaptive DFID programmes have operated with minimal fanfare or publicity, working ‘behind the scenes’ with little or no UK branding. With aid projects inevitably becoming tied even more closely and explicitly to diplomacy, it may be hard for programme managers to maintain this kind of discretion. 

Is Winter Coming? “The Foreign Office in Winter” by Foreign and Commonwealth Office is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

At the level of individuals, adaptive programming is particularly vulnerable to individual brain-drain, as outspoken champions are few and far between. If key adaptive champions decide to leave and if professional cadres and communities of practice get downgraded or diluted, the merger jeopardises decades worth of individual and institutional learning on this agenda.

However, not all is doom and gloom. There may be a silver lining or two in lowering the public profile of UK aid.

As an independent department with a relatively large and protected budget, DFID has been subject to relentless political attacks, which grew increasingly frenzied as austerity took hold. Starting with Andrew Mitchell, successive development secretaries have tried to justify DFID’s status and spending power through an increasingly narrow results agenda associated with fixed target-setting and a transactional understanding of value for money. These accountability pressures have largely worked at cross-purposes with adaptive, problem-driven aid.

Hardened aid-sceptics are unlikely to be satisfied until the 0.7% spending commitment is repealed. But the merger does mean that aid is less politically exposed, at least for the time being. And without as much need to actively appease the right-wing press, there may be less emphasis in FCDO on simplistic narratives around ‘buying results’. This may, in turn, provide an opportunity to reshape the aid results architecture in ways that are better suited for adaptive programming.

Whether these silver linings come true or not may depend on our ability to seize the moment and reflect on what has worked well – and not so well – in our advocacy efforts.

The adaptive agenda: Lessons from advocacy so far

In our experience, advocacy for adaptive development within DFID has fallen broadly into two types: agenda-setting projects at both central and country level, and efforts to build a community of practice. There’s lessons we can draw from both.

Targeted agenda-setting projects have advanced the evidence and thinking on different elements of adaptive development (particularly MEL). These kinds of projects respond well to demand by key units or individuals – our champions within DFID and other donors. But because they are demand-driven and targeted, their impact is often limited to like-minded peers.

At the country level, a growing number of DFID projects call for adaptation in some form or another. But success in delivering adaptive projects is still heavily dependent on these same champions, who can navigate bureaucratic politics and secure approval for more experimental approaches.

Innovative practice has been difficult to disseminate, and even more difficult to sustain. There’s an increasing number of case studies, and at ODI we’ve been codifying some of the best practice into formal guidance. But a lot of the day-to-day adaptive work is still ad hoc, one-off and personality based. 

We’ve also recognised the need to get senior-level buy-in to create more sustainable momentum. Agenda-setting projects have proven to be too granular for this kind of advocacy. It’s generally been easier to get senior champions on board through the community of practice approach: convening various informal groups, building internal networks, and delivering workshops at cross-cadre professional development conferences.

Realising the importance of building a strong and broad coalition at the centre, we have also sought to build buy-in from key mid-level public servants with an approval role. However, certain parts of the organisation have remained stubbornly resistant. For example, as much as we have tried, we never quite cracked the procurement and contracting barrier, which remains a big stumbling block.

These challenges are all partly related to the fact that our adaptive advocacy in DFID has always involved retro-fitting – trying to change entrenched institutions and incentives to fit new evidence and different ideas. But with FCDO, there’s a chance to sow adaptive seeds into the foundations of the new organisation – if we’re smart about it.

Not everyone’s happy…..

Adaptive development 2.0

We can mourn as long as we want the DFID-that-was, reminisce about the good old days when “they listened to us”. But at some point – and sooner rather than later – we will have to engage, lest everything that we have worked for gets lost in the deafening noise of bureaucratic rebirth. Here are some recommendations on what to do differently.

First, we should try to understand the political economy of the FCDO from day one. Our first questions should be: who matters? And who cares?

Second, we need to get out of the aid bubble and find examples of adaptive programmes that have supported wider UK diplomatic objectives, particularly in sectors we know will be high on the FCDO agenda – security and fragility, for example, and private sector development.

Third, we need to start engaging the FCDO not around the merits of the adaptive development agenda, but around specific issue areas that benefit from a more adaptive approach – it shouldn’t be hard, as many HMG priorities easily fall on the complex end of the spectrum already.

Fourth, we should exercise some intellectual humility by looking for approaches, methodologies, and communities of practice that may already engage in adaptive thinking, even if they don’t use our labels – the defence and stabilisation communities, where uncertainty is de rigueur, are likely to be our clearest allies.

Overall, this merger presents those of us invested in adaptive development with a choice: will we continue business as usual, hoping for an invitation from the FCDO that may never materialise? Or will we take this opportunity to rethink our approach and be – dare we say – politically smart and adaptive in our advocacy?

August 12, 2020
Duncan Green