by Alix Wadeson (January 31, 2020) (See original post on LinkedIn here)
Consultant: International Aid and Development; Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning
The palpable paradigm shift to Adaptive Management in the international aid and development sector in recent years permeates discourse and directives across the board. One only needs to do a quick internet scan to see this – from institutional donor frameworks, calls for proposals, INGO program approaches, job descriptions, blog posts, and think tank initiatives. With this transition comes the inevitable buzzwords and acronyms that we development nerds both love and hate and love to hate (VFM anyone?).
So, we can see it is alive, but is it well? While teaching a summer course last year in beautiful Bologna on Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL – another one of our beloved acronyms) for Adaptive Management, course participants challenged us with a few questions, rightly so. Spoiler alert, we didn’t have all the answers (as we are all still learning!). But it is useful to reflect on these as we embark on our revamped courses for 2020, with an aim to improve and adapt, of course.
1. Sounds good, but let’s be honest, is Adaptive Management just old wine in new bottles?
Well, in a way, yes. A lot of the concepts and tools we (and others) propose for Adaptive Management in policy and practice are not exactly new. And a good deal of it really is just good program management for development and common sense – things like understanding our operating context in-depth; ensuring robust risk and scenario planning; scanning the environment regularly; and using real-time program monitoring data to inform decision making and change courses of action. These are all things we should do which are not really that new; there are tools a plenty. However, the ‘new’ is pulling it all together and the sector recognizing Adaptive Management as a necessary approach to design and implement programs in complex and unpredictable environments, with a hope to achieve tangible change. Instead of pre-planning from start to finish in lofty proposals with rigid log-frames and multi-year workplans, and upholding, frankly-speaking, misguided and naïve beliefs about how change will happen, we argue that Adaptive Management takes a humbler approach. We know where we want to go, well at least right now, but we don’t know how we will get there, exactly. We have some well-informed ideas based on prior experience, but we understand that we must use evidence to make decisions and continuously challenge our assumptions. The difference is also the shift in donor funding and frameworks that allows for implementers to make changes without extreme justifications, penalties, or lengthy bureaucratic processes and negotiations. So, while the tools may not all be new, we propose that perhaps the ‘toolbox’ is – it reflects an approach which brings it together under which stakeholders understand and agree that we will need to change as we go during a given project or program. In a sense, we’re focusing on vintage approaches.
2. Practitioners may be ready for Adaptive Management, but are donors actually ready to allow us to really do it with their funding?
Good question, we hope so! There are signs of progress with a few donors leading the way on this. It’s encouraging that DFID’s ‘What Good Looks Like’ and USAID’s Collaborating, Learning and Adapting Framework (CLA) both reflect and call for an Adaptive Management approach to working with these institutions. The Global Learning for Adaptive Management initiative (GLAM) is a partnership between ODI, USAID and DFID aimed to explore and identify solid evidence for what works in Adaptive Management and relevant monitoring, evaluation and learning practices. Adaptivity is one focus area in Sida’s operational plan for 2019-2021 while our collaborators at Acute Incite are working with a group of donors including USAID, Unicef, Sida, IDB, GIZ, IFAD, the Wellcome Trust and the World Bank to advise and pave the way in this regard.
However, it’s fair to be skeptical. There are many common requirements within institutional funding that still require us to adhere to strict budgeting, rigid log-frames, and unrealistic expectations of knowing exactly how and when change will happen over a multi-year timeframe in some of the most fragile and unstable operating contexts on earth (Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, the list goes on). Furthermore, one could argue that funding modalities such as Payment by Results could inhibit rather than promote innovation since resource-stretched CSOs are on the hook for the cost of failure. The contracting of large institutional donor portfolios to the ‘Big Four’ firms who then sub-grant and manage CSOs based on their corporate (and sometimes incompatible) management models and financial trackers. While these might be deemed by some as beacons for enhanced accountability, we see this as potentially problematic for genuine adaptive management practice to flourish. However, with the ongoing efforts being made by some of the most influential global donors to produce their own spin on Adaptive Management, we should give them credit and be hopeful. And we can (and should) also use donors’ own language and concepts when planning and negotiating with funders and grant managers on the reality of our programs. We should help them ‘put their money where their mouth is’, so to speak.
3. I’m on board! But how does one ‘do’ Adaptive Management (where’s the silver bullet)?
We wish we knew! If you find one, let us know. But in reality, our answer is, it depends (annoying right?). Since programming is so context-specific and adapting in an optimal direction is inextricably linked to the changes within a given environment over time, and how a program interacts with that environment, we can’t say in all circumstances do a), b) and c) and voilà, you are doing Adaptive Management. It’s an iterative process. There are certainly a host of useful practices and tools to consider and integrate; but one’s Adaptive Management ‘roadmap’ will depend heavily on the program, context, resources, timeframe, and capacity at hand.
But also, equally important is that Adaptive Management calls for a wider cultural shift and challenges more traditional decision-making structures in the sector. It’s about our own capacity to allow meaningful space for reflection and using our data to inform change before the final evaluation tells us what we already knew. But change is hard! Psychology tells us that humans don’t love it, in fact, we often resist it. It is hard to accept that after pouring days, months and years into something, that we need to change direction and go through the arduous task of re-budgeting and planning all over again. We’re already so busy and overworked! Or, maybe we don’t want to tell our co-workers and senior management the bad news. Or our donor doesn’t want to hear it or won’t allow for change because they have strategic goals set by senior government officials who need to report to taxpayers. There are so many potential barriers and fears which prevent us from making adaptations, that are rooted in the social and cultural realms. So, as much as Adaptive Management is about the hard skills and tools, it’s also about the soft skills and norms. They go hand-in-hand.
Want to start or continue your Adaptive Management journey? Join us (Alix Wadeson and Nicola Giordano) and our collaborators Piers Bocock and Andrea Wolfe in partnership with the University of Bologna and the Center for International Development (CID) at the State University of New York, Albany in our upcoming course: “Adaptive Management Theory and Practice for International Development”. Two offerings are available: Washington, DC in March 2020 and Bologna, Italy in June 2020.