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Norwegian Aid and Adaptive Programming

Towards the end of 2015, Itad’s Organisational Effectiveness theme conducted an evaluation of Norway’s support to public sector capacity development.

This is the second of three blogs, which explore the findings from the study.  The first looked at the factors that explain Norway’s success in supporting capacity development, this one focuses on how well Norway meets the principle of adaptive management in how it supports capacity development.  It’s based on a longer evaluation brief that Itad was commissioned to write. The third blog looks at the role of capacity assessments in ensuring contextually appropriate capacity support. You can find links to these blogs at the end of the page.

There’s a lot of discussion within international development at the moment around the idea of ‘adaptive programming’. This is in response to a long-held belief and growing evidence that development is complex, context-specific, non-linear and political, and that conventional development interventions too often fail to take this into account.  Different approaches and communities have been formed around the idea of adaptive programming. From our reading, they all share four key principles:

  1. Problem identification: Adaptive programming approaches underline the need to identify particular problems in particular contexts through a rigorous process of problem identification. Past experience has shown that in too many cases, development interventions start off by prescribing the solution without fully understanding the problem, and impose international best practices and blue prints rather than solutions tailored to local problems.
  1. Local ownership: Another key element of adaptive programming is local ownership. Proponents of adaptive programming argue that effective development interventions tend to be locally owned, including the identification of both problems and solutions, and a process that is locally-driven and engages a broad set of local stakeholders. Local ownership is thought to enhance legitimacy, viability and relevance of development interventions. 
  1. Experimentation: Adaptive programming approaches also highlight the value of experimenting with new ideas, making ‘small bets’ in an entrepreneurial manner that recognises risks but also potential rewards, and learning from failure and not just from success. All too often, development interventions confine themselves to ‘tried and tested’ approaches, and are too risk averse to explore new and potentially more effective ways of working. 
  1. Learning and adapting: Finally, and building on the above, adaptive programming approaches encourage rapid cycles of design, implementation, learning and adaptation, in which short feedback loops allow development interventions to constantly learn from both success and failure, to adjust course, and iteratively improve based on what worked and what didn’t. This compares differently to many conventional development interventions, which are tied to pre-defined courses of action, and in which learning happens only through long feedback loops at the end of an intervention phase.

Recognising the value of adaptive management as an approach to managing aid, we were asked by Norad to see how Norway’s approach to capacity development measures up against these four principles.

Norway’s partner-led approach means that is does well with creating local ownership and the space for local partners to play a formative role in deciding the priorities for support and take a lead role in implementation. This is supported by Norwegian aid policies, incentives and culture.

Likewise, Norwegian aid is highly flexible, demonstrating a willingness to change plans, scale up efforts and fund discreet activities as needs arise. This goes some way towards the principles of ‘learning & adapting’.

However, where we found Norwegian aid is lacking is in supporting experimentation, learning and adaptation in a systematic way. While we found evidence of learning and adaptation happening, it was rarely by design. There are no systems or incentives in place to promote such an approach, and the application depended too often on the individual programme manager.

There were also weaknesses in problem identification. For example, Norway doesn’t have a consistent way of assessing and diagnosing the capacity needs of partners at the start of a capacity development intervention.

So what does this tell us?  Well, on one level, it tells us that Norwegian aid has hallmarks of adaptive management: it’s flexible and it’s focused on local ownership.  However, flexibility shouldn’t be confused with being adaptive.  Being adaptive is purposeful.  It’s a conscious management approach that embeds experimentation and learning into the way programmes are designed and managed.  This is where Norwegian aid falls down; its flexible, but not in a systematic way.

Arguably, Norway is starting from a good place.  Flexibility is a not a characteristic that many donors in international development exhibit.  Many have layers of rules and processes that enforce standardization.  The challenge for Norway is how to bring greater structure to its flexibility.