What can NGOs/others learn from DFID’s shift to ‘adaptive development’?

Got back from holiday last week and went straight into a discussion with NGOs and thinktanks on Adaptation2‘adaptive development’. Really interesting for several reasons:

I realized there’s a bunch of civil society people (100 people at the seminar, plus 50 online) thinking along parallel lines to donors and academics in the Thinking and Working Politically and Doing Development Differently initiatives, but currently very little cross over. Why is that? I think it’s partly down to being in separate networks, partly scale – big donor money v small NGO projects, partly language (NGOs don’t have much time for all that ‘political settlements’ type jargon) and partly politics/tone –  TWP/DDD conversations feel very top down to most NGO types. But the overlap remains huge, and there are big missed opportunities in not bringing the two together. Any volunteers?

Some intriguing thoughts from Pete Vowles, who seems to be doing fantastic work deep in the bowels of DFID. He reckons that the ‘SMART rules’ he helped devise have largely removed the formal barriers to adaptive working, and what remains are the informal barriers, including ‘institutional optimism’, the cultural impossibility of saying ‘we don’t know’ while simultaneously asking for/committing funding, and the fact that people invariably ask for guidance, which can all too easily turn into the next set of tickboxes.

From his position as DFID’s ‘Head of Programme Delivery’, Pete is amassing some interesting first hand experience and great new ideas of what encourages flexible/adaptive programming:

adaptive-plan‘Low ambition logframes’ can often lead to better relationships and partnerships than high ambition ones. In the latter, the moment something ‘goes red’ (i.e. targets are missed), the funders jump in, people get defensive, and we’re back to the old ways of working. Maybe the logframe is better seen as a minimum, providing insurance for funders and a foundation for adaptive, flexible work, rather than a maximum?

DFID is testing different approaches to what this all means in practice, including one nice example  of a DFID programme where the team  agreed 15 outputs, and then said ‘we’ll pay the partner for delivering any four of them’ in explicit recognition of the different directions the programme could go.

Elsewhere in government (eg around the construction of Heathrow Terminal 5), he’s seen task team approaches where you don’t even know who works for who. What if, say, donors, CSOs and government put together a task team on civilian protection in Eastern DRC, seconded staff, allocated funds and essentially set up a temporary organization? It could even be spun off as a new body with a small endowment if it shows particular promise.

If local knowledge is paramount, as all the TWP/DDD thinking suggests, it’s no good wringing our hands about staff turnover – let’s taken it as a given and think laterally. What about having as standard a panel of local experts (either in country, or with long term engagement there), who act as an institutional memory for amnesiac aid organizations?

The ensuing NGO examples and conversation worried me a bit. I can already see us saying (with some justification) ‘but we’ve always done adaptive development’, and then just trotting out our usual Potemkin Programmes. We need to be pushed hard to identify what is new and what isn’t in all this, and then to try out some new approaches, such as those Pete was talking about. This is where funders and researchers could really help – identify a few countries/sectors where there is buy in from donor national offices, INGOs and national organizations, maybe adopt a task team approach, and monitor carefully what happens next.

We could also take a dose of our own medicine. If we think positive deviance is the way to go, then let’s start by

Start by studying the starred bit
Start by studying the starred bit

taking the ‘we’ve been doing this for decades’ community seriously – identify the most adaptive outliers, both in terms of aid programmes, but also countries, communities etc, study them, and see what we can learn. Where are poor communities already particularly resilient to climate change? Has anyone done that?

And the same goes for collaboration – if the lesson of adaptive development is quick, intelligent context and power analysis, but then get stuck in and learn by doing/adapt as you go along, surely the same goes for our attempts to get better at it. Enough talk – we need to set up some experiments and start learning.

As for my input, I did my standard ‘Fit for the Future’ presentation – here’s my talking points (One Pager), focussing on:

  • Who is ‘we’: Relinquishing Control and Porous Boundaries
  • How do ‘we’ think and act? Learn to Dance with the System
  • Imagine there’s no Projects and no ‘development issues’ too
  • What’s stopping us?

Let me know if you want a post fleshing that out, or a 10m video rant instead

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14 Responses to “What can NGOs/others learn from DFID’s shift to ‘adaptive development’?”
  1. Søren

    “He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

    Rather than bringing the two (NGOs & academia) together I’d like to see academics focus their attention on the greater theory of change. For all the good things there are to say about all these smart and adaptive thoughts, it seems that there is very little attention to grounding it in theory.

    It’s a problem that contemporary social theory is typically at odds with the experienced complexity. i.e. new institutional economics. And I think it’s the main reason for the limited effects of policy interventions.
    It’s a shame then that so much academic attention goes into seamanship and so little into developing a paradigm that accounts for complexity.

    • Duncan Green

      Yep, we have a fuzzword on our hands, with all the pluses and minuses that go with that. Pluses – lots of conversations within a fuzzy boundary of a new approach. Downsides: people rebranding other things as this thing, saying they are doing it already and generally diluting the idea. Any answers?

    • Søren

      My answer, of course, in is my comment above. Can I recommend reading up on Community-based/driven Development though. The reminiscence is striking. It was embraced from all over and build on the idea that the ‘target of intervention’ was endlessly resourceful if you just got a bit out of the way.

  2. Kate

    I thought this was a great meeting. On the adaptive management among NGOs vs TWG/DDD among academics and donors divide – there are probably divides between disciplines as well as sectors eg there’s been talk for years about adaptive management among academics working on sustainable development/environmental issues, involving some similar ideas to the politics and governance thinking.

    On the lack of crossover – one potential obstacle is that discussions hosted by membership networks may not be open to others(eg group meetings and online workspaces that aren’t accessible to non-members – which doesn’t help all this intersectoral collaboration and NGO-academic partnership we like to talk about). One of the great things about the learning partnership meeting was that it was open to anyone. It would be great to host future physical or online discussions in a way that allows anyone to participate (donors, academics, NGOs). (I don’t know if this is an actual barrier to joint discussion or just my personal grudge as an ex-BOND member who now can’t access their activities :))

  3. Kate

    Also, on identifying adaptive outliers – a USAID competition to identify good examples of programmes that are ‘collaborating, learning and adapting’ just popped into my inbox. Impressive influence, Duncan. Only open to organisations linked to USAID (and so focused on aid programmes not countries), but may come up with some interesting examples. http://usaidlearninglab.org/cla-case-competition

  4. Matt

    there are industries which invest in learning when things go wrong – to make sure they don’t go wrong again – the aviation industry is a case in point, they see that investing in learning from what goes wrong saves them money in the long run – pilots and others are expected to report failures and mistakes, near misses etc, and when things do go wrong there are the black boxes, independent investigation teams etc to find out why… take the aid ‘industry’ it is in everyone’s interests (apart for those we are trying to support) to under report failure and over report success…. too many careers at stake. we really need to re think how we deal with failure so that we can learn and improve… oh yes and while we are at it we need to redesign the unit of delivery of change – the project makes sense administratively but I don’t think it make sense if we are talking about change…but that is for another time. thanks for posting Duncan it was both interesting and short – both of which are very often lacking these days.

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