What can we learn from how an Adaptive Management programme has navigated Myanmar’s current chaos?

September 19, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

I accompanied a project in Myanmar that ran from August 2017 to October 2021 implemented by DT Global. This blog is written together with guest bloggers Jane Lonsdale and Kelly Robertson.

As part of the programme’s final output, we wrote a ‘reflection paper’, discussing what ended up as being an important natural experiment in Adaptive Management (AM), as a governance project set up to be adaptive was buffeted by (and responded to) two huge ‘critical junctures’ – the global COVID-19 pandemic from March 2020 onwards, and the military coup of February 2021.

Sadly, because of the dire security situation, staff, partner, donor and programme details have had to be minimized, so the focus is on the practicalities of how adaptive management took place, with the intention of giving some real-life experiences and tips to those grappling with how to do it. The result (in our (heavily biased) opinion!) is a useful addition to the literature on adaptive management.

Some highlights. First, here’s how a senior national staffer sees adaptive management:

‘Because I am from Myanmar – adaptive management is more like real life. Our whole lives are about adaptation! No-one trusts the political stability of the country, so we can’t plan our lives like people in the West.’

Photo credit: Saw Wunna

The paper uses DT Global’s adaptive management framework to analyse how adaptive over time the programme was in four dimensions of flexibility, responsiveness, purposive learning and culture. To some extent the paper marks its own homework, finding that the programme passes the AM test with flying colours. There was genuinely a lot of adaptation day to day and through two critical junctures… but what may be of most use to others is the section on ‘further insights’. These included:

People and power

Leadership: Finding, supporting and setting leaders (national and international) free to do great work was central to the approach, for both the programme and donor teams. In particular, having talented and natural leaders among national staff was crucial. They had the respect and trust of the donor, were able to stand up to pressure, and acted as a vital bridge so that the views and experiences of other national staff, who were less confident in presenting their case in English, for example, were heard by the whole team in an empowered environment. A case of locally-led development supporting thinking and working politically.

Gender inclusion and working with or bending the grain: There is a potential tension between working with the grain and promoting gender transformation or challenging gender norms. The grain in Myanmar is male dominated, the spaces in which to influence policy are also male dominated – outside formal meeting spaces, beer houses and golf courses are often where decisions are made. Working deeply on a reform space, building credibility, providing responsive technical assistance in governance, and then ‘wedging the entry point open’, taking the relationship further to move into an influencing and technical space on underlying gender and power issues proved the most successful way to mainstream inclusion in the programme’s work.  

Holding an umbrella over delivery staff: In the absence of transforming aid architecture to fully support adaptive management, minimizing the amount of time that key national staff in particular have to spend on ‘feeding the beast’ was important. This required additional staff to meet the reporting and compliance demands, which is too often seen as a luxury in aid programmes. Having an operations lead role that straddled programme and operations, and an individual who knew and was interested in what both sides were doing in detail, contributed to a rare harmony between the two. This avoids a scenario whereby compliance staff dictate to delivery staff, which undermines effectiveness.

Because I am from Myanmar – adaptive management is more like real life

Project Design

Adaptive management in fragile settings: Adaptive management is often difficult and high pressure, which (as the earlier quote suggests) mirrors real life in a fragile/conflict affected state such as Myanmar better than the pre-ordained predictability of a traditional development project. With the instability and therefore inability to plan, it makes sense for development projects working on inherently political subjects such as governance in fragile states to think long-term but plan short-term, pausing and re-planning every time an unexpected reform opportunity or crisis occurs.

Optimal exploration period: For adaptive management programmes, in the absence of an initial strategy, plan or project-specific logframe, a phase of exploration is both inevitable and desirable. Problems to work on need to be analysed and agreed, an initial theory of change can only be as detailed as the analysis and entry points that the team has identified so far. For this programme, it was 18 months before the programme really gained traction.

Improvisation vs. accountability: The balance between freedom to think and work politically and structures to ensure accountability is a key tension within adaptive management. Too little structure, particularly on strategy and decision making, and there is potential for chaos, confusion, and waste. Too many rules and processes to complete will squeeze the time, space and culture that frontline staff need to be out building relationships and opportunities. 

Donors and implementers

Relationship balance: Agreeing the level of involvement is key. Working closely with the donor provided the environment to shift course easily, the trade-off being autonomy to fully set the agenda. The donor’s willingness to learn and succeed or fail together gave the programme the confidence to take risks. DT Global brought project management and resourcing efficiency, giving the programme leadership space and support.

The paper ends with recommendations to donors and implementing partners. Here’s a sample, but you’ll have to read the paper for the full set.

RecommendationWhy is this important
Invest in finding the right mix of individuals and building an empowering culture upfrontAdaptive management relies heavily on the mix of individuals with the right culture and high levels of trust. Avoiding unnecessary structure and processes can create a virtuous circle.
Ensure operational budgets are sufficiently generous Adaptive management requires investment and delivery staff to be free to focus on frontline responsiveness whilst maintaining accountability in the project. 
Review the process of donor accountability mechanisms for adaptive management projectsHeavy upwards reporting against traditional project management structures costs more time and money, siphoning resources away from delivery. A lighter and potentially less frequent approach could provide better value for money. 
A 12-month inception and design phaseTime without delivery pressure is necessary to identify which problems to tackle and to build the relationships needed to find promising entry points. 
Request naming of only key positions in tender applicationsCreating a culture for adaptive management is part capacity based and part the mix of individual personalities. The capacity needs emerge as a project is designed and evolves, and a team that is given the chance to follow a ‘flying geese’ model, building up slowly from a core of initial leaders, provides a better chance of creating the required culture than naming all positions upfront.
Avoid prescriptive MEL tools: take what is useful to the core project mission and adaptTools and processes can take on a life of their own, taking time and resources away from frontline delivery. Working out what needs to be measured and stripping it down to the essentials is more appropriate in supporting.

Looking back from September 2023, the Myanmar situation remains incredibly difficult and politically stuck; people are increasingly struggling in their daily lives. In terms of how international actors can best support inclusive, responsive governance and a sustainable reduction in violence, we still believe that working adaptively is needed to work in such a chaotic situation.

Thoughts on how far these reflections resonate?

September 19, 2023
Duncan Green


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