What did I learn in Myanmar about what Adaptive Programming actually looks like?

December 15, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

I’m still processing a fascinating week in Myanmar. No I wasn’t in Rakhine, in case you’re wondering (separate post on that may follow). Instead, along with aid programming guru Angela Christie, I was exploring what ‘adaptive management’ looks like on the ground, and how it compares to all the fine-sounding stuff repeated endlessly in aid seminars around the world.

The lab rat for this was Pyoe Pin, one of a handful of examples of adaptive management that is regularly cited (eg in this 2014 paper by David Booth and Sue Unsworth). It’s DFID’s baby, and has been running since 2007. Its purpose (according to one of the deluge of reports we were obliged to read) is to:

‘support civil society, private sector and government to work together to address problems and identify locally-led solutions. Supporting coalitions focused on specific issues that local actors care about has led to results that have had both an intrinsic value – including reforms in important areas such as land, education, health, forestry, legal aid and freedom of association, impacting the lives of millions of people – and have also contributed to changing the ‘rules of the game’ to be more inclusive, open and fair.’

Pyoe Pin does this through a combination of political economy analysis, grants, technical advice and getting people into the room to talk. PEA helps spot potential reform windows and supporters. As a funder it can hand out small and medium sized bits of money quickly when it spots an opportunity; it can bring in experts, whether from Myanmar or outside, to push along a discussion; and it spends a lot of time building what it calls ‘Coalitions of Interest’, which are not necessarily the same as (formal) coalitions – the PP approach is more fluid than that.

Its focus is on finding winnable reforms by aligning incentives, which seems pretty wise in a conflict-ridden environment like Myanmar, where stoking protest movements and opposition is unlikely to end in anything good. We looked at a particular example – getting reform of the fisheries laws to include a lot more small fishing families and weaken the cartel of big business interests that previously had a lucrative lock on the fishing license system. Pyoe Pin funded and supported small fishers to organize, built links with legislators, persuaded reformers to leave the cartels enough of a slice of the action to weaken their opposition, and took the resulting ‘coalitions of interest’ to Cambodia to see fisheries reform in action. It worked a treat, and new laws are already transforming lives on the ground, as we saw on a visit to a fishing community in the Ayeyarwaddy region.

We spent a week with Pyoe Pin staff, partners, aid donors, and other CSOs and came away pretty impressed, but also aware that the story is both more nuanced and more interesting than the standard narrative. We’ll be writing a paper on that (and I will doubtless stick the draft up on the blog when it’s ready), but here are a couple of preliminary thoughts:

Being ‘adaptive’ works on (at least) two levels, and in very different ways

Adaptive Management is a way of doing development differently in the day-to-day. Instead of implementing The Plan, everyone from frontline to back office thinks on their feet, continuously navigating through a fog of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. They do this through a mix of curiosity, evidence, emotional intelligence and plain old instinct (the test, as Angela put it, is whether your staff or partners spot and react to ‘the frown on the face of the minister’). From that, they generate best guesses for what to try next, then test and correct (call it ‘dancing with the system’)

Adaptive Programming: This is a more deliberate and conscious process of staff standing back periodically, commissioning ‘political economy analyses’, bringing in critical friends etc to review the way the work is developing and chart the course for the next period.

Because of the aid business’ fascination with procedures, reporting etc a lot of the attention has been on Adaptive Programming, but we came away with the view that the day-to-day stuff of adaptive management is at least as important. And it raises some big questions:

Reporting: Good dancers often find it very difficult to describe how they dance, but that is what is required if you are to keep your donor happy. This is not about inventing some bogus ‘we reduced poverty by 34.6%’ stat to keep the minister at bay, but taking donors with you on the dance – capture and explain ‘critical moments’, like how you responded to the frown and what happened next (management) or decided to continue/end a particular piece of work (programming).

People: I’m English so I know how hard it is to teach people that can’t dance to do so….. Adaptive Management stands or falls on soft skills (emotional intelligence, empathy) that are extremely hard to train into people. So you need to recruit the right people, and give them the freedom to work adaptively. Pyoe Pin also encourages its staff to spend time exchanging dance tips between practitioners working in different fields (it works on 9 issues – Fisheries, Garments; Natural Resource Governance: Land, Forestry, Extractives; Education, Maternal and Child Health, HIV and Access to Justice).

But what else might help? Mentoring seems to be becoming more common in the aid business, and holds potential, but really helping staff become top dancers might require something more formal like an apprenticeship – shadowing a veteran staffer for 6 months as part of an induction. That sounds expensive, but could save years of ‘learning by failing’.

Which more or less fleshes out my mid-trip video on why this kind of approach is particularly relevant to fragile and conflict-affected situations.