Draft Paper on Adaptive Management in Oxfam – all comments welcome

With a few important exceptions, large international NGOs have been pretty absent from the global conversation about ‘Doing complexity signDevelopment Differently’, but are they doing it anyway and just skipping the meetings?

To find out, a group of LSE Masters Students analysed a bunch of case studies of Oxfam programmes claiming to pursue ‘adaptive management’ approaches. Their report is so interesting that we want to publish it, but first we’re inviting you to comment on their draft, here. Deadline for comments 16th June to  g.maneo[at]lse.ac.uk.

The students – Annika Schlingheider, Erica Pellfolk, Gabriele Maneo, and Harsh Desai – analysed seven Oxfam programmes, along with other examples from across the aid business. Here’s the exec sum:

Adaptive management is at the heart of ‘doing development differently’. Whether it is ‘here to stay’ depends on how much it is mainstreamed into existing development programming, especially planning, monitoring, evaluation, and learning (PMEL) cycles. In this report, we find that mainstreaming adaptive management in PMEL involves three strategies: (1) planning for flexibility; (2) developing locally-owned M&E; and (3) creating an enabling environment for learning. Adopting these strategies AM fig 1contributes to virtuous cycles of PMEL.

Oxfam GB has a broad impact and has long been committed to flexible programming. We thus identify and assess examples of adaptive management within Oxfam’s PMEL frameworks, illustrating enablers and barriers in seven Oxfam programmes. We also showcase examples in Mercy Corps, the World Bank, DFID, and Care International. In doing so, we hope to inform adaptive approaches for PMEL and help practitioners be better equipped to address modern, complex challenges.


Plan for Flexibility Experiment with evolutionary approaches. When outcomes are unclear, implementing parallel pilots may help fine-tune programme design. Though this can be time- and resource-intensive, deliberations that align stakeholder understandings and promote buy-in can offset downsides (e.g. resource-drain) of trial-and-error approaches.

  • Negotiate flexible funding. Sharing of budget targets, setting up centralised ‘rainy day’ funds for need-based adjustments, and innovating PbR contracts by including early grant funding are three strategies to create conditions for adaptation. If donors are reluctant, inviting them to on-site visits and learning events can familiarise them with programmes, build trust-based relationships, and improve chances for flexible funding arrangements. Training staff to understand flexible budgets is key to such approaches.
  • Design adaptive logframes and contracts. Logframes are important tools for accountability but often create path dependency. Though donors are interested in adaptive arrangements, they may lack the capacity or knowledge to create them. Negotiating broad-but-defined indicators and incorporating room for adjustments can help build this capacity and prevent lock-in amid changing circumstances. If donors resist adaptive frameworks, it may help to communicate how building-in flexibility during planning can offset the transaction costs of adjusting during implementation.

Develop Locally-owned M&E

  • Invest in training. Broadening data literacy among country staff allows burden-sharing for M&E and improves capacity to collect timely data. Building capacity is costly initially but can prevent overburdening M&E staff down the road.
  • Improve partner selection strategies. Selecting partners that are aligned in mandates and resources can (a) help compensate for resource shortages; (b) encourage sensitivity to context; (c) strategically broaden an organisation’s field networks; and (d) align incentives for sustained engagement and communication. It can also create an ‘institutional legacy’ of a programme that enables its long-term resilience.
  • Foster bottom-up decision-making and data-collection. Encouraging bottom-up tools and approaches (e.g. the Concept Note System and steering committees) can help foster feedback and delegate decisions to local staff and communities. Not only does this reduce transaction costs of top-down management, but it also promotes locally-responsive solutions.

Create an Enabling Environment for Learning

  • Facilitate communication between country offices. Relying too much on HQ to broker communication can create information siloes. Country staff can take ownership of this process by initiating dialogue with other country offices, especially through events or on-site visits. This has the added benefit of creating alternative sources of institutional memory within the organisation.
  • Face-to-face dialogue is key. Though webinars and reports are helpful conversation-starters, nothing beats face-to-face communication via learning events, workshops, and in-person visits. Setting aside funding – whether through centralised funds or integrating it into overhead costs – is a first step to mobilise momentum for such events. By creating room for discussions, they allow staff to reflect upon and internalise lessons.
  • Shift mindsets, not just practices. Being adaptive is intimidating. Investing in coaching and mentoring, and prioritising learning and reflection among younger staff, helps overcome mental barriers to adopting adaptive approaches. Despite high up-front costs, such strategies build organisational culture and resilience for adaptive management.

And here are the case studies.

Within Oxfam

Chukua Hatua(DFID) A governance programme to strengthen civil society in Tanzania.
A multi-country programme (MCP) to promote gender-inclusive agri-business in South East Asia.
A MCP in eight countries to support rights-based approaches to health and education for citizens.
A programme in Bangladesh to support economic empowerment, adaptation to climate change, leadership, and learning.
South Caucasus
(European Commission)
A programme in Georgia and Armenia to foster farmers’ rights and promote food security.
A programme in the DRC and Kenya to provide sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene to citizens.
A MCP in Afghanistan, Occupied Palestinian Territories/Israel, South Sudan, and the DRC to promote accountable governance by building civil society capacity.

Outside Oxfam

LASER | KPMG & LDP(DFID) A MCP to strengthen legal and judicial capacity and improve the investment climate in eight countries.
IGP-PSCM | World Bank(World Bank) A programme in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to improve governance in the pharmaceutical sector and broaden access to medicine.
SOMGEP | CARE(DFID) A programme in Somalia to improve access to and shift norms regarding girls’ education.
PRIME | Mercy Corps(USAID) A programme in Ethiopia to broaden pastoralist market integration and improve climate change resilience

Over to you…..

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12 Responses to “Draft Paper on Adaptive Management in Oxfam – all comments welcome”
  1. Yunus Adams

    High praises to my colleagues in the LSE Development Management programme. The report is both timely and I imagine it will receive great interest from INGOs and donors alike across countries. Be sure to share it widely!
    I would like to suggest a greater emphasis on the interests and concerns of donors and maybe how PbR can overcome these. I believe the report would benefit from engaging the concerns of donors from their own perspective and not just from the NGO-perspective.
    The summary mentions a few instances of potential donor resistance and how it can be overcome. However, in my opinion, donor resistance and potential responses should have a separate section. Increasing flexibility and adaptability might be a rational thing to do considering the ever-changing circumstances that projects often face. Donors are, though, inherently opposed to uncertainty and demand some level of predictability. Why then would they easily embrase a funding framework that increases uncertainty in programming? If resistance is expected to be substantial, which I imagine it would, this would be an argument for understanding it better.
    The increasing use of Payments by Results by donors is one attempt to allow for project flexibility, while ensuring that the project delivers results that are agreed upon. PbR is briefly mentioned in the summary above, but I find that there’s potential for linking the concerns I raise above with the potentials of PbR. By agreeing on outcomes and paying for these rather than project inputs, donors can maintain predictability while NGOs can have the increased flexibility of adaptive management. Asking for adaptive management without also changing how payments are designed might be seen as asking for the best of both worlds (flexible implementation, but secure payments). Donors might be cautious of this.
    Greater emphasis (or merely combining sections that might already be in the report) on the potential resistance from donors and the ways in which funding modalities can meet the concerns of donors would potentially improve the applicability of the report.

    • Annika

      Thanks for your thoughtful input, Yunus! We indeed had several discussions on whether to include a separate section ‘From a Donor’s Perspective’ in the report. In the end, we only refrained from doing so as what we had to say fit well in the recommendation section. Interestingly, in our interviews with donors (admittedly with representatives of the pro adaptive management camp…) we learned that many donors are actually quite open to more adaptive approaches, especially in contexts of high uncertainty where rigid funding frameworks are likely to be counterproductive.
      With regard to PbR, your point is well taken, but we have found pros and cons to PbR, as Toby suggests below. Here’s a nice summary of the PbR discussion by Duncan: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/apr/12/payment-by-results-aid-evidence-for-against

  2. Toby Lowe

    I think the ‘Adaptive Management’ approach sounds like a sensible response to the challenges of working in complex environments. I really don’t understand even the limited enthusiasm for Payment by Results in this work, though. PbR is inherently unfriendly to working in complex environments, as it seeks to turn real, complex outcomes into simplified proxy measures, and fixes agreed outcomes in advance. Both of these things make working in complex environments more difficult. There is an alternative, complexity-friendly approach to funding and commissioning emerging – find information on that here: https://collaboratecic.com/a-whole-new-world-funding-and-commissioning-in-complexity-12b6bdc2abd8

    • Annika

      Hi Toby! Great, thanks for your comment. As indicated in our reply to Yunus above, we agree with you on the potential downsides of PbR. However, as the case study of the SWIFT project reveals, there is also evidence supporting PbR as a way to foster adaptive management and improve M&E mechanisms. This is why we believe that it is an idea that should still be on the table. Thanks a lot for the Collaborate Report, which looks very interesting. We’ll have a closer look!

  3. Sarah Ireland

    Thinking about creating an enabling environment – I agree and on the mindset shifts, high upfront investment sounds prohibitive – the highest costs to what you suggest is time and attention – helping people see that the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’ is a step in the right direction

    • Annika

      Hi Sarah! Thank you for your comment, we fully agree. With our report we attempted to provide a comprehensive and case study based illustration of ways to manage adaptively, which would help people to see the ‘how to’ as well.

  4. David Harold Chester

    From Poverty to Power is not only about adaptive management but should include the way management affect anyone whose opportunities are being compromised. How to avoid this harmful practice is described below:

    Socially Just Taxation, and Its 17 Effects On: Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics

    Our present complicated system for taxation is unfair and has many faults. The biggest problem is to arrange it on a socially just basis. Many companies employ their workers in various ways and pay them diversely. Since these companies are registered in different countries for a number of categories, the determination the criterion for a just tax system becomes impossible, particularly if based on a fair measure of human work-activity. So why try when there is a better means available, which is really a true and socially just method?

    Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”, 1776 REF. 1) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals, animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently, most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015, REF 2.).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law, in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an item of capital goods, although it is not (Prof. Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison: “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005 REF. 3).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information, speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes). The only people due to lose from this are the “army” of tax collectors employed by the government, as well as those who exploit the growing values of the land over the past years. Here “mere” land ownership confers a financial benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts. (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and Poverty” 1879, REF. 4, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except for landlords, tax-men and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics

    Four Aspects for Better Government:

    1. LVT, adds to the national income as do other taxation systems, but it should replace them.
    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all other production-related taxes, since tax avoidance becomes impossible–the various sites are visible to all, and their ownership is public knowledge.
    3. Consumers pay less for their purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater satisfaction with the management of national affairs.
    4. The speculation in and withholding of unused land is eliminated, see item 7 and the national economy stabilizes. It no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:
    5. LVT is progressive–owners of the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax. Urban sites provide the most usefulness and resulting tax. Big rural sites have less value and can be farmed appropriately to their ability to provide useful produce.
    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large proportion of the present ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even when it is not used).
    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices because the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.
    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites become available, the competition for them is less fierce.
    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that come into use.
    10. With LVT, land prices will initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased demand for produce (see below, items 12 and 13).

    Three Aspects Regarding Improved Communities:
    11. With LVT, there is an incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.
    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.
    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Kinder Ethics:
    14. The collection of taxes from productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this national extortion by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from the land owner or by the banks– LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.
    15. The previous bribery and corruption for gaining privileged information about land cease. Before, this was due to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and lawyers’ bank balances).
    16. The improved use of the more central land of cities reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when traveling between home and workplace.
    17. Because the LVT eliminates the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in a natural way– to provide more jobs because their production costs are reduced. Then untaxed earnings will correspond to the value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT has been properly and fully introduced as a single tax, it will eliminate poverty and improve business ethics.


    1. Adam Smith: “The Wealth of Nations”, 1776.
    2. Martin Adams: “LAND– A New Paradigm for a Thriving World”, North Atlantic Books, California, 2015.
    3. Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison: “The Corruption of Economics”, Shepheard-Walyn, London, 2005.
    4. Henry George: “Progress and Poverty” 1897, reprinted by Schalkenbach Foundation, NY, 1978.

  5. Very much enjoyed this paper. Well done to the authors. But it does leave me puzzled. In fact the whole Adaptive Management language leaves me slightly puzzled. We seem to be doing all we can to turn what in essence is a more politically (small p) informed, nuanced, interpretive set of judgements into a rock-solid ‘technique”. The three recommendations (planning for flexibility, develop locally-owned monitoring and evaluation, create an enabling environment for learning) are all fine but they, well, sort of miss the point. And the point surely is not merely to respond to the unknown (ie politics – stuff happening) but to embrace it and even try to influence it. I googled the paper and the word ‘politics’ does not appear. ‘Interests’ appears once (a flexible financial framework is the answer). ‘Incentives’ appears four times – and these are incentives for engagement, communications and performance – not the positive and negative incentives of stakeholders. ‘Institutions’ appears twice, but the term is used synonymously with organisations. ‘Political economy’ appears four times in references.

    Now of course language and terminology are but one part of the picture. But it does seem to me that by so ‘technocratising’ AM we are in danger of missing the point. And the point is to engage with reality as we find it. It seems to me that Adaptive Management has little to say about three of the insights highlighted by TWP. First, in problem selection and interrogation. AM kicks in once the intervention is under way. But identifying, selecting and interrogating the problem faces is an absolutely central component of TWP. Do we (‘we’ being whomsoever) judge that there is a potential ‘answer’ to a problem – and one that is technically desirable and politically feasible? This is a major call. Second, AM seems to be pretty quiet on context analysis – holding constantly under review all those interests and incentives swirling around the initiative as it moves slowly forward. how is the initiative interacting with the authorising environment – all the politics that happens when stuff begins to happen? Learning is about much more than communicating – it has to be about identifying what made the change happen – if it did – or what stopped it happening if it didn’t. Any insights generated need to be used in future iterations. Finally, it seems to me that none of DDD, PDIA and AM recognise the single largest implication of TWP – and that is actively to embrace, and engage with, the assumptions that clutter the right hand side of the Log Frame. We all know the logic of the LogFrame: if outputs are delivered and one’s assumptions hold (usually some cretinous guff about ‘political will’), then one’s outcomes will be achieved. One of the major arguments of TWP is that development interventions should be designed to ensure that all these assumptions are realised. Initiatives are designed precisely to deliver the ‘political will’ for the change / reform program or whatever it is. This is the big lessons from DFAT’s ‘Coalitions for Change’ program in the Philippines and DFID’s ‘Pyoe Pin’ program in Myanmar. Their success has much more to do with informed and insightful problem selection and active and concerted political engagement over the long-term than anything whatsoever to do with flexible budgets.

    • Duncan Green

      Brilliant Graham, thanks. I too am worried about the ‘technocratising tendency’, whereby a series of good ideas and insights get boiled down into toolkits, and depoliticised along the way. Maybe keeping everything that matters in the change-makers repertoire at the level of the tacit and implicit is the only way to prevent this happening? Alarming thought for those of us who spend our time trying to drag stuff into the light…..

    • Duncan Green

      This from Jo Rowlands: ‘agree with a lot of what Graham is saying.
      But the issue is one of how do you take the ideas of TWP and build them into institutions, and/or make them implementable by people with less sophisticated understanding of what’s needed -aka real life? – always high risk of rendering rigid! But if you don’t institutionalise, how do you implement with any kind of scale?’

    • Marta Arranz

      Thank you Graham, really enjoyed your points and the different angle. I agree that “A how to guide to Adaptive Management” sounds a bit of an oxymoron. Is like asking someone to be spontaneous, in doing what we ask them to do they are already not doing what we are asking them to do. On the other hand, I find helpful learning from concrete examples of things that others tried and used to make their interventions more adaptive.
      None of the adaptive elements that are presented in this report are adaptive in themselves, is how they were used in that particular context.

      Mind-set, leadership and culture play indeed a crucial role in building that enabling environment for adaptive practice, but unless the systems in place reflect that mind-set it can be schizophrenic. In organisations that deliver programmes, teams that want to embrace adaptive practice are confronted with the crude reality of the institutional bureaucracy, multi-level sign-off processes, management systems, accountability standards, requirements, etc. If all these systems are not informed by the same principles we want to incentivise, we’ll be asking programme teams to be heroes that swim against the current, adapting while they find their ways around compliance and bureaucracy. I actually believe we can design and use systems that help us to adapt better, that are more supportive of adaptive practice.
      The picture is incomplete if the operational and managerial aspects of programming are not included. If we really want interventions that are more agile and responsive to a complex changing environment, we need management systems and approaches that support this.