Key conclusions

  • Sustainable change is behaviour change. Understanding the incentives which govern why people do what they do is essential.
  • Learning is essential. Programmes that cannot learn cannot operate in a dynamic or challenging context.
  • Opportunity matters. Change – of any kind – is not guaranteed to happen; and sometimes the difference between success and failure can be down to how programmes make opportunity work for them.
  • Know your donor. Getting to know the people who will make choices about programmes – both before they start and when they are underway – makes dealing with challenge and change easier.
  • Identity counts. Programme teams need to be more than “just another donor”; and be able to work across cultural, political and economic divides. History in a context and working to build trust, collaboration, understanding and inclusion matter.

Adaptive programming

Donors are increasingly seeking adaptive approaches to delivering development programmes.  Whilst there is plenty of theory about the approach such as  this, there is somewhat less helpful guidance on how to go about it, although this, this and this offer some sensible starting points.

Development is about politics

Development is an ever evolving discipline.  It is increasingly recognised to be a political intervention.  And often the desired outcomes for development programmes implemented in complex environments are really about achieving change.

There is a growing body of literature about this.  Thinking and Working Politically (TWP), Doing Development Differently (DDD) and Problem Driven, Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) are some which shape donor approaches today.  And there is a growing interest in understanding how change happens as well as awareness that the answer is rarely purely technical.

But such programmes are seldom merely about a single developmental outcome. Increasingly, donor interventions take place in the wider context of donor interests which (depending on the context) might include global security, trade promotion and/or the rule of law.

Understanding the wider backdrop to donor interests is key to delivering the programmes that they fund.

No actor is neutral

Although many development practitioners like to think of themselves and their organisations as neutral, the truth is that they are not.

The perceptions of others are what really count.  And understanding how those perceptions might colour a potential partner’s engagement with a programme is key.

Recognising that donors and the groups who implement their programmes are usually assumed to have an “angle”; and understanding what it might be and how it influences the behaviours of others is vital.

Politics is about life

Key to successful implementation of an adaptive programme is understanding where power lies; why change happens; and how.  Understanding the incentives – and disincentives – which play on the people who make the choices is key to this.  And some of those incentives might not be the ones which implementers and donors would wish them to be.

Implementers of adaptive programmes also need to understand that they are governed, to a degree, by the domestic politics of their – sometimes multiple – donors too.  Like the local context, donor priorities and interests change over time.  So keeping a careful eye on wider donor policy objectives is a key task too.

Shaping an intervention

Making sure that a proposed programme is well founded and has realistic expectations of the changes that are possible is vital to programme success.  Working with partners and also with donors to help them understand the art of the possible is a core programme activity.  In this respect it is as important to understand the political economy in which the donor operates as it is to understand the one in which citizens and potential partners operate.

Life is about people

The logical starting point for this kind of programming then, is to begin with where people find themselves now; and then to go with the grain, accompanying them on their journey rather than a route defined by others.  Understanding how people interact with the politics of their context, with institutions and with donors is therefore essential.  They will be as much governed by the class, family, ethnic group, religion and society from which they come as by a shared understanding of the anticipated developmental benefit of a proposed donor programme.

Learning to read and understand the motivations of key actors is essential.  Complex political economy tools are available, but the Everyday Political Analysis (EPA) tool is a straightforward and helpful starting point.  The essential point of this activity is to generate a shared understanding and analysis of the political context that informs all the relevant actors – citizens; partners; programme staff; and donors.  How this shared analysis is arrived at and maintained will depend on the context and the motivation of those involved.  But this kind of political economy work should be seen as a process more than a product; and should be considered a live and evolving activity.

Skilful navigation

Within this context, then, the ability of the implementer of a programme to convene all the actors in a safe space and to understand the wider context is essential.  The art of delivering an  adaptive programmes is the ability to understand and work towards a wider programme goal whilst all the time fine tuning implementation against the back drop of what is politically possible.

Traditionally development programmes have planned to work in an orderly way through a series of milestones towards a clearly defined end point – much like orienteering, a sport in which contestants run from known fixed point to known fixed point as quickly as possible.

But adaptive programming is a little bit more like sailing a boat in stormy weather.  In order to arrive at the desired destination, “skilful navigators” need to work constantly to adapt to the effect of wind and tide; and always need to know exactly where they are, bearing in mind that sometimes it is necessary to go backwards in order ultimately to make progress.  In this way, the final destination is reached by the most efficient possible route – even if, thanks to the elements, it was not the one upon which the sailor had originally embarked.

Key conclusion: Sustainable change is behaviour change

Development programmes cannot, alone, bring about change.  But they can influence the behaviour of the people who make up society and its institutions.  The essence, then, of adaptive programming is to promote behaviour change in order to influence the rules of the game and to contribute towards change over time.

People shape the context

As with the pressures which play on the people with whom an adaptive programme might work, the context within which it operates shifts all the time.  This requires programmes constantly to monitor the environment within which they work; and to test and adjust their stance and interventions on a continual basis.

Over time, the practice of monitoring the context continuously translates into a form of learning culture.  Rather than continuously discovering “new” aspects of the environment, adaptive programmes start to learn how the rules of the game play out.  They – the people they employ; the partners they reach; wider stakeholders – stop observing the system as outsiders and start understanding it as actors.  The ability to form and network relationships and understanding with and between this wide range of relevant actors is how the sum comes to add up to more than its parts.

Feedback counts

The ability to know that a programme is being effective is critical.  This requires an ability to gather and understand almost real time data.  Monitoring, evaluation and learning are vital tools in an adaptive programme.  They help the programme management to switch resources between activities based on a rapid assessment of the return on investment that they represent.  Perhaps more importantly, they provide a way for partners and programme management together to plan strategically in order to learn from both success and failure, and to realise a shared vision.  In this way, evaluation ceases to be something which is done “to” partners; and is welcomed as a part of forward thinking strategic planning.

But learning from success is only part of the story.  Understanding what has not worked – and why – is possibly more helpful than knowing that an intervention is working as predicted.  A programme culture which ranks success on an equal footing with an ability to draw positive lessons from any activities which do not deliver as anticipated is likely to be more successful than one driven by quantitative measures alone.  It is often the less successful interventions which offer the greatest potential for learning about how to be successful.

In designing a monitoring, evaluation and learning strategy for an adaptive programme, it is important to focus on the programme’s contribution towards a desired change, rather than only on the inputs that it has made.

In this approach, care must be taken to avoid diluting or undermining the important issue of local ownership.  Adaptive programmes exist to support the efforts of others, not to create a profile for themselves.  The egos of the programme team – and any desire on the part of donors to “brand” success as theirs – needs to be left firmly at the door.

Key conclusion:Learning is essential

Without a designed-in capacity to learn, adaptive programmes will be unable to focus on their overall programme goals, leaving them vulnerable to mission creep or misplaced donor expectations.  Learning involves discovering not just “what” to do, but “how” to do it in the local context.  The learning that such programmes develop do not just shape their actions, but they inform the choices which are made about them by others.  Donors who understand the context better will make longer-term investments.  Partners who see that programmes understand their reality will engage more fully.

Conditioning the environment

Shaping the choices that donors make is a key opportunity – one which only really occurs before a formal decision to contract an activity is taken.

Donor choices are not always as well founded as they might be; and may be a response as much to their domestic political context as anything else.   The view from within an Embassy is not always the same as the view of an Embassy from the outside.  Programme staff can play an important role in helping donors to remain focused on what is politically, technically and socially possible in the prevailing context.  But the extent to which this is possible from within an ongoing programme is limited.  Permanent in-country representation which pre-dates a programme and will endure beyond its end offers implementers a greater stake in the choices about what to do and how to do it.  Employing this capacity to shape donor choices and expectations before they are formalised is a useful investment in helping adaptive programmes hit the ground running.

Key conclusion: Opportunity matters

Sometimes, despite significant efforts to promote change, nothing happens.  But at other times, change happens almost out of the blue.  Adaptive programmes cannot guarantee change, but they can help to promote opportunities for change. They can help to prepare for a time – or opportunity – which has not yet come.  Often, the key factor which makes change possible turns out to be chance. 

Natural disaster – or dramatic political change – can sometimes provide an opportunity for intervention.  Being positioned to identify and exploit such opportunities in a timely manner is an important capability of an adaptive programme.

Strategic patience

An essential element of conditioning the environment within which choices about what to do and how to do it are made is the need for time.  Many of the changes that adaptive programmes seek to promote may only become truly evident long after their formal end.  Although change might happen quickly, it might equally happen very slowly indeed; and it may be that a programme’s contribution to that change is difficult to discern until some time has passed.  Programme teams and donors need to understand the value of strategic patience in ensuring that their interventions can be as effective and sustainable as possible.  As a general rule, the stakeholders in a change have not read the logframe developed between donors and programmes; and will embrace change at their own speed and on their own terms.

Flexible approaches

Adaptive programmes are all about flexibility.  But having the actual flexibility to meet goals requires more than just an intellectual understanding of progress.  In the same way that the programme needs to be flexible, programme management needs to be able to adapt to a changing environment.  Fixed budgets and rigid staffing structures, as well as procurement mechanisms designed more for commercial contractors than fragile partners can all constrain a programme’s ability to be flexible and exploit opportunity.

Impressions count

Programme teams occupy a contested space between donors and local actors.  To be really effective in the local context – to play more than just a “donor” role – programmes need to draw on an identity that is attractive to partners; one which inspires them to work with the programme in the way that it wants and needs.  Adaptive programmes need to be able to convene people in safe spaces, to facilitate processes, help to connect expertise to issues and facilitate the development of capacity.  Key to this is legitimacy.  This legitimacy stems from the ability to employ the right people; to empower them with knowledge and understanding; adopt ways of working with others that demonstrates respect for local agendas; and is based on enduring and trusting relationships founded on shared values and principles.

Implementers of adaptive programmes need to be clear about “who” they are; and in whose interests they are working.  Maintaining at least a local perception of independence from donor politics is essential.  This task is made considerably easier if the programme team can trade on a long established reputation for trust, understanding, collaboration and inclusion.

Key conclusion: Know your donor

Hidden beneath the formal language of donor positions and contracts are real people.  Understanding them, and the pressures and incentives which play on them (including as, over time, the key personalities change), is every bit as important as understanding the local context.  Developing positive relations with donors helps to smooth out the dialogue with them, ensuring that challenges and changes can be explored in a neutral manner.  Where you have multiple donors, time spent upfront harmonising their focus is time well spent.

Key conclusion: Identity counts

Who you are matters just as much as who you represent.  It conditions how interlocutors perceive programmes; and how they respond to it. As the implementer of a donor funded programme, people’s expectations of your interests and conduct will be shaped from the outset.  How you work in an inclusive way to increase collaboration and develop shared understanding between actors will also, over time, determine the level of trust in your programme. Managing and shaping partner perceptions (as well as donor and other local perceptions) is key; and seeking to be more than just another donor matters.

  • Sustainable change is behaviour change. 
  • Learning is essential. 
  • Opportunity matters. 
  • Know your donor. 
  • Identity counts.