Second (and Third) Thoughts on Adaptive Management and Thinking and Working Politically

Going into self-doubt mode for the rest of this week, on the feasibility and impact of the ‘second orthodoxy’.

Students can be great at pointing out the contradictions in your thinking and this year’s LSE cohort seem particularly good at it. A recent set of student-led seminars focussed on Adaptive Management and Thinking and Working Politically (AM/TWP) and connected a few dots in new ways (for me at least). They also fed into some of my doubts, further fuelled by Graham Teskey’s recent Eeyore-ish take.


First, the link to power: although what Graham calls ‘the second orthodoxy’ holds that aid decisions need to be made by national staff and partners, not expats or distant bureaucrats in head office, the students pointed out that all this thinking has so far been relentlessly Northern – there is no crowd of developing country aid workers marching on HQ chanting ‘what do we want – Adaptive Management!’.

In fact it’s worse than that. I am still haunted by a conversation with a veteran TWP-er from Nigeria who after one of my presentations said (I paraphrase) – ‘ah, I see, so you’ve taken all our experience, couched it in new language and jargon, and now we have to relearn it!’. Ouch.

Second, the link to systems: A few years ago, I wrote a paper with an outstandingly dull title: Theories of Change for Promoting Empowerment and Accountability in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Settings. Racy, eh? It argued that donor theories of change largely fall into two camps – ‘do more’ and ‘do less’. The ‘do more’ camp, which includes most of the AM/TWP crew, argue for diving into trying to understand local context, through a combination of political economy analysis and listening to local staff and partners, and then using lots of smart methods to respond, adapt and respond again in an effort to bring about change. These are my guys.

The ‘do less’ camp say ‘who are you trying to kid?’ Contexts are too complex, opaque for outsiders, or even insiders, to fully understand. Forget all your fancy analyses and theories of change, let alone ‘picking winners’ and think about systems – how do you build resilience, encourage new possibilities? That can mean everything from strengthening property rights to basic literacy and health to better broadband – then leave local people to come up with stuff that you had never imagined.

My problem is that I’m fascinated by the first approach (hence all those papers and blogs on adaptive management), and the second group tend to be a bit too laissez faire, ‘leave it to the wonders of the market’ for my taste. But they (gulp) may just have a stronger argument.

Hype Cycle in cartoon form

Third, fragility. Even when AM/TWP projects have got off the ground and started to deliver results, with a few notable exceptions, they have been vulnerable to staff or ministerial turnover in the donors, or other events that come along and trigger a rush back to the safety of business-as-usual.

Fourth, placing AM/TWP in its historical context. This may have already occurred to people, but my students got me thinking about a question that is always worth asking – why now? Back in the 2000s, Ros Eyben was pointing out that aid workers routinely lived a double life – on the ground, they improvised, backed their best guesses, and generally ‘thought and worked politically’. They then airbrushed all the mess out of their reports to HQ, turning them into neat linear chains of planning and execution to keep their bosses happy.

Going back even further, my old boss at Oxfam, Mark Goldring, recalls fondly how as Oxfam Country Director, he could ‘turn off the telex’ (look it up, if that word means nothing to you) and be left to make his own decisions, free of any communications from HQ.

Two things have changed: the growing cult of compliance, results and risk minimization (no-one tries to manage risk, only to eliminate it), and the IT-enabled death of distance, which means that your boss is pretty much in permanent residence on your shoulder, wherever you are working.

So maybe AM/TWP is defensive, a way to try and win back the ground that was lost through these twin forces? That would at least explain why some of the old guard say ‘meh, nothing new here’.

Finally, what happens when it becomes A Thing. The aid business is a maelstrom of ‘new’ ideas (often old wine in new bottles, it’s true). Fads, fuzzwords and buzzwords come and go at a dizzying rate, fuelled by thinktanks and policy entrepreneurs eager to make their mark (and yes, I guess I’m part of the problem – back to the Nigeria conversation). If you clamber your way to the top of the intellectual heap, what awaits you? On the plus side, adoption – people take your idea, try to put it into practice, then you can learn from all the experiences and hopefully, aid programmes have more impact.

The downside is dilution – while the first cohort of early adopters are passionate and committed, if your idea ‘cuts through’, the next lot just want to know what to do, what template to fill in, what ‘toolkit’ to use. And those seeking funding will start ‘adaptive washing’ – sprinkling the language over their bid documents to show they are fully up with the latest thinking. All very northern and exclusive, and either annoying or baffling to those on the ground actually trying to make change happen (as I found in my conversations with governance activists in Myanmar, who basically wanted to be protected from all this intellectualising, even as they were doing adaptive management/TWP quite brilliantly).

A straw to clutch at? The Hype Cycle – it feels like we are heading downward to the ‘trough of disillusionment’ form the initial peak of ‘inflated expectations’, but we will bounce back to something more sustained, that becomes a permanent feature of the aid landscape.

Fun game for geeks – why not locate all the aid/development fads from last decade on the hype curve – microfinance, cash transfers, resilience, nexus, payment by results, impact bonds etc etc etc. Your call whether to do it for inner circle afficianados or sector at large (which usually lags by a few years). Any offers?

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10 Responses to “Second (and Third) Thoughts on Adaptive Management and Thinking and Working Politically”
  1. zu

    thinking politically and understanding history: what are your reflections now on your ‘political thinking’ in Myanmar? apparently no ‘experts’ seems to feel any responsibility for a political thinking that was nowhere close to Myanmar politics. “Tyranny of the Experts?”

    • Duncan Green

      Good challenge Zu. My feeling is that TWP type approaches are valuable, but every now and then are swept aside by massive political earthquakes like the coup. So in that sense they are second order solutions, but still worth pursuing. Bit like Ukraine now – does that invalidate all the slow work of democracy building, citizens rights etc in Russia, Ukraine and neighbouring countries? Surely not. The tidal wvae will subside, and then the preceding and future TWP work will contribute to what rises from the debris. What do you think?

  2. Nicolai Schulz

    Thank you for sharing these reflections, Duncan. Definitely thought-provoking. I was interested to know whether by the end of writing your post you still felt like the “do less” crowd have the stronger argument (or if that was an “in-between feeling”)?

  3. David Waller

    Another fad to add? Social accountability in general and community score card in particular. Done properly it can be transformative but to save money and apply accountability washing it is too often done as a tool kit without any thought to why it is being done and is just more extraction of information that changes nothing

  4. Duncan, while the old guard skeptics have some valid points about AM/TWP being simply repackaged ‘good development practice’, they fail, in my opinion, to see that contextually driven, locally led development programming is the exception to the rule in an industry that is mainly compliance-driven and externally led. The image of the “administrative” tail wagging the “program” dog, comes to mind. The rationale for making AM/TWP a ‘thing’ is because the incentives from funding agencies are still to spend on time (burn rate) to achieve results (mainly outputs) within a set time period using “innovative” technical/fixes. The aid industry still bristles when the dreaded “p” word is uttered for fear that it could inhibit achievement of expected results. While I understand the potential backlash of the use of political language from those who are not keen on reforms pushed by local change agents or external development partners, AM/TWP is attempting to incentivize aid practitioners to engage in political analysis more systematically and to check their own assumptions of why a development problem persists. AM/TWP never claimed that its tools such as applied PEA, CLA, Systems Mapping, etc., were panaceas, only worthwhile investments that should be mainstreamed into program design, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and learning to incentivize practitioners to immersive themselves into the political economies they are investing in, to take risks, and be rewarded for it. No doubt at all that politically smart approaches are hard to pull off; local contexts are complex, doing development differently is difficult because, inter alia, it requires internal reforms of aid agencies, and because sticking your neck out to back reform efforts can be bad for one’s longevity. But…sustainable change that challenges existing power structures is rarely risk free or easy. I also realize that the evidence base for AM/TWP is still very much a work in progress. That is because there are few incentives to monitor, evaluate and learn from the programming that do adopt AM/TWP.

  5. Duncan Green

    Some good push-back on twitter. This from Tom Aston:
    I think you’ve badly mischaracterised your own categories of “more” and “less.” They’re not divided by whether they do PEA. listen to local staff or not and use clever M&E. They just come to a different judgement on what’s feasible in particular contexts.
    See here for a paper written (I suspect) by a mix of (generally) “do more” and “do less” people. But, remember, it’s sometimes right to do more and sometimes right to do less. If it’s absolute, we’re all doing it wrong @fp2p…

    Also see the following discussions, facilitated by and promoting the views of both “do more” and “do less” folks @fp2p . See what your students think. cc. @nomhossain @Halloran_B @nomhossain @ZukiswaKota…

    Also wrote a whole series of blogs and a paper on some of these tension points which dovetail your ToC paper:…

    New @CEDILProgramme Paper 3 pathways to social #accountability #scale in context: Resonance, Best practice, Resistance #Midleveltheory to close the gap between theory & practice… @traffyaston @ChiesSchommer @sue_cant @RebeccaLHaines @joanna_wheeler Blogs…

  6. Katherine Bain

    Provoking indeed Duncan, if a little gloomy. (I need to time my reading of your and Graham’s blogs carefully and make sure I read them on a sunny day!) As others have pointed out, I do not understand your dichotomy of the do more vs do less community. I don’t know how you build resilience and systems (the do less) without doing more. Matt Andrews has provided lots of evidence of how doing less the laissez faire way, as you say, has failed. And perhaps AM/DDD/ TWP is a reaction against unfit aid architectures which generally seem to be going in the wrong direction, as Graham notes, but thank goodness for the reaction and the creativity of specific staff who protect spaces of autonomy and muddling through to find better locally led solutions to complex problems. If this requires some of us having to dress this up in new jargon to satisfy the powers that be in aid bureaucracies, while defending the space for colleagues in the field, is that so problematic? I do not have to teach bright young minds like you do (thank goodness) but am interested in what their suggestions for tackling complex, systemic problems were if it didn’t involve some of the principles of AM. And I do have university-aged children so let me offer this based on personal experience: beware the critical thinking that does not propose better alternatives: it might have more criticism than thought.

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