What have we learned from a close look at 3 DFID Adaptive Management programmes?

July 4, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Adaptive Management week part 3 (with some trepidation given the recent comments from Heather Marquette et al about the proliferation of flakey case studies in lieu of evidence)…. My paper with Angela Christie summarizing our 3 case studies of big DFID-funded Adaptive Management projects in Myanmar, Tanzania and Nigeria is now online. Every word in its 26 pages is golden, obviously, but for the unworthy among you, here’s the exec sum:

“There are those who can work with ambiguity and those who are frozen by it. Some people need the route map, and others want to throw away the map and say ‘let’s go and see where the sea takes us.’” PERL staffer, Nigeria

Fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings (FCVAS) are messy and ambiguous contexts in which to plan and implement development initiatives. To work there, external actors are increasingly adopting an adaptive approach to empowerment and accountability (E&A) programming, whatever the setting. This means using a compass rather than map, where real-time political economy analysis (PEA) in relation to context and programme monitoring and evidence-informed learning in relation to intervention are used in combination and in shorter-than-usual planning cycles to maintain and adapt strategic direction. This paper brings together three case studies of large Department for International Development (DFID) governance projects in Myanmar, Nigeria and Tanzania. It forms part of a larger research programme1 on social and political action towards empowerment and accountability in FCVAS.


If ‘context is everything’, the context in FCVAS is often very messy indeed: all three case study countries are characterised by unpredictable economic, political and social events and processes and a growing crackdown on the activities and freedoms of civil society organisations. As a consequence, the politics of uncertainty and risk in FCVAS raise profound challenges to traditional donor approaches to partnership, which revolve around the ‘holy trinity’ of state, private sector and civil society organisations. To differing degrees, all three of these and the links between them may be weak or absent in FCVAS. This partial vacuum highlights other forms of ‘public authority’ (traditional chiefs, armed organisations, faith groups), with whom donors are much less accustomed to working, but who have always formed part of the socio-political landscape in FCVAS.


Perhaps the most important finding from the three case studies has been the emerging picture of the constituent elements of an adaptive approach, and how they interact.

Figure 1: The Adaptive Management Life Cycle – The interplay between adaptive governance, adaptive programming and adaptive delivery

Adaptive Delivery is the daily, on-the-ground work undertaken by a delivery team, with their fingers on the social, political and economic pulse of the world in which they operate. Instead of implementing ‘The Technical Plan’, they think politically, opportunistically and on-their-feet, continuously navigating through a fog of ever-changing conditions, many moving parts and players, ambiguity and uncertainty and towards political ends (shifts in power imbalances).

Adaptive Programming is a slower and more structured process, usually in the hands of the senior team within the programme office and informed by frontline staff and the patterns and players that they are spotting or that are emerging from delivery, as well as the pressures from donors to deliver results.

Adaptive Governance normally resides with the officer(s) in the donor agency responsible for funding the programme and following its progress. They must both manage upwards, coping with the pressures for results, reporting and shifting strategic priorities, and manage downwards, ensuring that the programme accounts for how it is spending donor money, but also retains the freedom of strategic manoeuvre that lies at the heart of adaptive approaches.

The relationship between adaptive delivery, programming and governance is constantly evolving, and can sometimes be fraught. The basic currency of adaptive approaches is trust between the various players and tiers involved and confidence that the plan will remain realistic even as it changes. Equilibrium can be disrupted by any number of factors – a political or other exogenous shock; a change of leadership or policy; or a significant failure. Any of these events heightens the perception of risk and can trigger a reversion to more command and control approaches, which rapidly shrinks the space for innovation, improvisation and ‘dancing with the system’.


Across the case studies, it is difficult to demonstrate the results of adaptive approaches, in part because the actual workings of adaptive approaches barely register within formal results frameworks. To make convincing claims that adaptive approaches are more effective than non-adaptive programmes, it is necessary to show more than that they can achieve good results. It is important to understand how being adaptive makes these results better than they would have otherwise been; to be able to demonstrate that making programming shifts at critical junctures augments, amplifies or accelerates achievement. Being able to do this requires both monitoring the response to context (staying relevant) and monitoring the results of interventions (staying effective) – thereby being able to explain how learning and adapting in response to this information has affected contribution. Meeting this challenge credibly without becoming lost in complexity is the task in hand for donors and practitioners experimenting with an adaptive approach.

Conclusions: Is adaptation a useful approach for donors working in FCVAS?

The first response to that question should be – ‘compared to what?’ If the answer is ‘compared to programme approaches based on predicted and predictable results and results-pathways’, then there is widespread agreement that such aid programmes have struggled in FCVAS. Has adaptive management produced results in Myanmar, Nigeria and Tanzania? Overall, our conclusion is a conditional ‘yes’. Adaptive approaches have produced tangible and important wins in Myanmar and Nigeria and enabled the Tanzania programme to respond and adapt to a major political shock, when more rigid programmes might have foundered.

So, what makes ‘doing development differently’ possible, particularly in FCVAS?

Responding to the political context and the technical intervention in tandem: The requirement to be adaptive is born of uncertainty of context as well as uncertainty of intervention. Retaining the responsiveness of the intervention to context without losing strategic direction lies at the heart of adaptation and is vital where contexts are unpredictable and can be volatile. For this reason, programmes should be judged not by their effectiveness alone but by their relevance to the bigger picture and the extent to which they collectively augment fragile but strategic stakeholder relationships.

Get the People Right: Adaptive programmes need people who have the right attitude and soft skills to facilitate, influence, motivate and manage relationships with stakeholders; people who are emotionally intelligent and show humility, but also have the entrepreneurial, risk-taking appetite and drive to seize opportunities and try out new ideas. We are sceptical that staff steeped in blueprint or linear thinking and compliance mentalities can be transformed into risk-taking, politically savvy entrepreneurs through a few workshops or a tweak in incentives. Much more attention (and perhaps more research) is needed on how to recruit, incentivise and retain entrepreneurial spirits of the kind we saw in the three programmes.

Using money as a catalyst for latent development opportunities: Small, agile pots of funding can kick-start a relationship, or respond swiftly to a request or an event. The contrast with the normal big, slow procedures of aid allows adaptive programmes both to build trust and to seize windows of opportunity.

Building and maintaining relationships: Building, maintaining and repairing trust between all the different people in the jigsaw is an exhausting and never-ending process of constant communication, especially important in fragile settings where tensions can run high. Communications are also about stamina, being prepared to start from scratch with every new arrival (particularly the case with donors, which often have a much higher level of staff turnover than programmes, especially frontline staff).

Future Fixes

Some areas need to be addressed if adaptive approaches are to prosper in future, including:

Fully recognising the value of local knowledge: Paradoxically, in an approach that emphasises the importance of local context and knowledge, all three programmes were initially designed by international experts, and there is some suggestion that adaptive approaches are becoming more (not less) the province of outsiders as the practice matures. Finding ways to better ‘indigenize’ the work will be crucial.

Being wary of isomorphism: As soon as any new aid ‘fad’ takes hold, its language spreads much faster than its practice. Adaptive approaches are no exception, with programme reports liberally sprinkled with its lexicon. The lesson for donors: Caveat emptor (buyer beware).

Avoiding the toolkit temptation: The aid sector spreads ideas via tools and guidelines. But codifying an approach based on emotional intelligence, relationships and trust carries a high risk of ending up with a tick box /checklist approach that surrenders its essence in the interest of replicability.

Working With/Against the Grain: Adaptive approaches emphasise the importance of ‘working with the grain’ of existing institutions rather than attempting to transplant ideas and institutions from elsewhere. But that approach requires treading a tightrope between engagement with local structures, and the programme’s commitment to transformational change. When government and citizen groups have competing priorities, how can a programme identify whose grain to work with? When is the existing grain so damaging to the interests of poor communities that ‘working against the grain’ should be the preferred response? This dilemma was particularly evident on issues of gender equity and inclusion. Conversely, when does working against stretch the political elastic to snapping point, precipitating a deal-breaking confrontation?

Evolution not revolution: The case studies suggest that there is still considerable uncertainty over how to deliver programmes successfully in an adaptive way and if and how this new approach yields better development results. This is not a surprising finding. Evolution takes time and only a commitment to further trial and the space for further error will tell us whether adaptive approaches offer a way to do development not only differently, but better – in settings where fragility, conflict and violence have challenged other more traditional approaches.