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Flexible and Adaptive…How Original

The title of this post relates to how adaptive programming was presented at a recent donor meeting, the aim being to profile a soon-to-be tendered new programme. And it’s right. In a short space of time, these words (flexible and adaptive) have become included in nearly all new calls for proposals.


The title of this post relates to how adaptive programming was presented at a recent donor meeting, the aim being to profile a soon-to-be tendered new programme. And it’s right. In a short space of time, these words (flexible and adaptive) have become included in nearly all new calls for proposals, as well as being a hot topic of discussion in development circles generally. But often they are just words, the originality which is lacking being what these words really mean in practice.

The difficulty is to do with how programmes that want to be flexible and adaptive are sold to senior managers. The pitch is: ‘trust us; we know what we’re doing, and flexibility is a better way to achieve results, so give us the money we want and we’ll deliver’. The response is ‘no’. The need to say upfront what is going to be done and achieved with money is still required, and isn’t likely to go away.

Two papers set out some of the key pillars of this debate: the first, entitled ‘Why We Will Never Learn: A Political Economy of Aid Effectiveness’ states that ‘The aid industry’s default setting is lesson suppression, not lesson learning’, highlighting that even though we know what is likely to work or not, we continue to act differently. The second pillar, which focuses on initiatives that demonstrate ‘thinking and working politically’, talks in terms of working on what is ‘politically possible’. Though this is framed in terms of recipient government, we could argue that this applies on both sides of the relationship. Political possibility and practical reality may not always overlap or align, but what is politically possible is far from being a static concept.

This relates to a recent post from ODI, who say that where adaptive approaches to programme delivery fall down isn’t from the aptitude, or the attitude, or the appetite, but the institutional dynamics. Where the big pressures and incentives still result in the kind of overly-rigid pre-planning that those from the Doing Development Differently community are attempting to address. DFID, for example, have introduced the ‘End-to-End Review’ and the resulting Smart Rules, which intend to give DFID staff more time to ‘…focus on delivery, context and external engagement without compromising rigour and value for money.’ How? Better processes; better accountability; stronger capability; better data; stronger leadership. The art is therefore to find out where the politically possible lies within these considerations.

There seems to be a strong central message here: success comes when managers are given the skills and autonomy to make the best decisions, based on the best evidence. At Itad, we not only support this in principle, but also in practice. As a blog from Itad’s Julian Barr last year showed, there is a huge amount of knowledge, experience and practice in this area. And, there is an ongoing conversation across the sector on how to implement such an approach, as well as how to address the challenge of institutional dynamics. As we see it, this is a question of ‘show, don’t tell’. It’s about finding ways to demonstrate the value that this approach can and does have, so that it’s no longer about ‘trust us’.

Reading the recent evaluation of Norad’s capacity development support to partners, which was led by Itad Associate Director Rob Lloyd, we have found that its success in this area stemmed from Norad’s flexibility as a donor, and the space and autonomy they give to partners to find best-fit solutions. However, this was limited by the lack of a clear systemic approach, and not collecting enough evidence to really understand what is working, what isn’t, and why. Again, doing is one thing, but the importance of showing comes through strongly. It also points to something of a gap in the market, which is how to codify and plan for flexibility and adaptation, especially when much of this is about management empowerment and discretion to make effective, real-time decisions.

So how do we move from suppression, to lessons, to identifying politically possible solutions and on to action and results? There are two areas in which we think that monitoring and evaluation (M&E) can play a big role in this:

  • The role of M&E within programme teams. It’s long been a bugbear of M&E-ers that we end up doing M&E. It’s been too often repeated, that ‘M&E is everyone’s job’. It is, if programmes are expected to deliver and be adaptive, technically true. This requires a better conceptualisation of the role, function and value of M&E in programmes, which would link in with how leaders and programme managers are trained to better understand collection and use of evidence, and support (mandate) the involvement of wider programme teams in this. It also relates to the internal-external M&E functions, and how these can be best conceptualised and managed to provide the strongest evidence base for decision making in programmes.
  • M&E approaches & tools that can support adaptive programming. Across the (wide) spectrum of M&E, there are lots of different approaches that can have a real benefit to adaptive programming. Evaluative approaches such as realist, developmental, real-time and theory-based evaluation have significant potential benefit (once properly assessed for their suitability for the specific intervention context). Focused as they are on context and the consistent re-assessment of evidence as it comes in they can have real impact when used to facilitate programme management discussions, from which decisions on course correction and adaptation can be made. Similarly, monitoring approaches and tools can support adaptive programming.  In this context success may be more rooted in the processes and systems within programme teams than the technical aspects of tools, which can only support a good quality process, not replace it. For example, the ‘positive deviance’ PDIA proposes relates as much to management autonomy and organisational culture as it does to systems.

Together, these two areas imply that M&E can help programme teams to identify where, how and how much adaptive programming can be successfully implemented. And this is an important point: that to do this well, it needs to be done strategically, and on the basis of careful investigation of the specifics of the programme context(s) in question, from donor needs down to community dynamics.

Itad is part of the SAVI programme in Nigeria that is a leading example of how to do ‘politically smart, locally-led’ programming, and via a newly formed working group on adaptive programming will be identifying and sharing further examples of practice and knowledge from across our programmes. In particular we are interested in where such approaches can be found in programmes that are not explicitly dealing with governance or political change per se. For example, in the BRACED programme in which Itad is part of the knowledge manager consortium, which focused on climate change resilience and adaptation, an adaptive programming approach has been designed to capture the range of complex changes that this programme will deliver.