The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) merger and the future of adaptive programming

Guest post by Ed Laws and Pablo Yanguas

The merger of DFID and the FCO into a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has sent shockwaves through the UK-centred development community, with NGOs and MPs publicly decrying the decision, current and former DFID staff expressing concern and dismay in private and in public, and a generalised sense that, at the very least, things have not been done as well as they should.

For those of us involved in trying to get DFID to act more adaptively and politically smart, the merger poses questions about the sustainability of our advocacy so far, and what the brave new world of British aid will mean for our champions and coalitions. In this post, we offer one interpretation of what comes next, based on our experiences in agenda-setting and delivery programmes.

The merger: Warning signs and silver linings

Like many in the community, we have reacted to the merger with some trepidation, for reasons to do more with how it is being orchestrated than what the end result may be.

Culturally, we see the merger as an expression of the broader political ideology of ‘British exceptionalism’, which may not leave much room for acknowledging uncertainty and complexity. An adaptative mindset, by contrast, begins from a place of epistemic humility, and it is yet to be seen whether such humility will be welcome in the organisational culture and professional incentives of the new department.

Some of the best examples of adaptive DFID programmes have operated with minimal fanfare or publicity, working ‘behind the scenes’ with little or no UK branding. With aid projects inevitably becoming tied even more closely and explicitly to diplomacy, it may be hard for programme managers to maintain this kind of discretion. 

Is Winter Coming? “The Foreign Office in Winter” by Foreign and Commonwealth Office is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

At the level of individuals, adaptive programming is particularly vulnerable to individual brain-drain, as outspoken champions are few and far between. If key adaptive champions decide to leave and if professional cadres and communities of practice get downgraded or diluted, the merger jeopardises decades worth of individual and institutional learning on this agenda.

However, not all is doom and gloom. There may be a silver lining or two in lowering the public profile of UK aid.

As an independent department with a relatively large and protected budget, DFID has been subject to relentless political attacks, which grew increasingly frenzied as austerity took hold. Starting with Andrew Mitchell, successive development secretaries have tried to justify DFID’s status and spending power through an increasingly narrow results agenda associated with fixed target-setting and a transactional understanding of value for money. These accountability pressures have largely worked at cross-purposes with adaptive, problem-driven aid.

Hardened aid-sceptics are unlikely to be satisfied until the 0.7% spending commitment is repealed. But the merger does mean that aid is less politically exposed, at least for the time being. And without as much need to actively appease the right-wing press, there may be less emphasis in FCDO on simplistic narratives around ‘buying results’. This may, in turn, provide an opportunity to reshape the aid results architecture in ways that are better suited for adaptive programming.

Whether these silver linings come true or not may depend on our ability to seize the moment and reflect on what has worked well – and not so well – in our advocacy efforts.

The adaptive agenda: Lessons from advocacy so far

In our experience, advocacy for adaptive development within DFID has fallen broadly into two types: agenda-setting projects at both central and country level, and efforts to build a community of practice. There’s lessons we can draw from both.

Targeted agenda-setting projects have advanced the evidence and thinking on different elements of adaptive development (particularly MEL). These kinds of projects respond well to demand by key units or individuals – our champions within DFID and other donors. But because they are demand-driven and targeted, their impact is often limited to like-minded peers.

At the country level, a growing number of DFID projects call for adaptation in some form or another. But success in delivering adaptive projects is still heavily dependent on these same champions, who can navigate bureaucratic politics and secure approval for more experimental approaches.

Innovative practice has been difficult to disseminate, and even more difficult to sustain. There’s an increasing number of case studies, and at ODI we’ve been codifying some of the best practice into formal guidance. But a lot of the day-to-day adaptive work is still ad hoc, one-off and personality based. 

We’ve also recognised the need to get senior-level buy-in to create more sustainable momentum. Agenda-setting projects have proven to be too granular for this kind of advocacy. It’s generally been easier to get senior champions on board through the community of practice approach: convening various informal groups, building internal networks, and delivering workshops at cross-cadre professional development conferences.

Realising the importance of building a strong and broad coalition at the centre, we have also sought to build buy-in from key mid-level public servants with an approval role. However, certain parts of the organisation have remained stubbornly resistant. For example, as much as we have tried, we never quite cracked the procurement and contracting barrier, which remains a big stumbling block.

These challenges are all partly related to the fact that our adaptive advocacy in DFID has always involved retro-fitting – trying to change entrenched institutions and incentives to fit new evidence and different ideas. But with FCDO, there’s a chance to sow adaptive seeds into the foundations of the new organisation – if we’re smart about it.

Not everyone’s happy…..

Adaptive development 2.0

We can mourn as long as we want the DFID-that-was, reminisce about the good old days when “they listened to us”. But at some point – and sooner rather than later – we will have to engage, lest everything that we have worked for gets lost in the deafening noise of bureaucratic rebirth. Here are some recommendations on what to do differently.

First, we should try to understand the political economy of the FCDO from day one. Our first questions should be: who matters? And who cares?

Second, we need to get out of the aid bubble and find examples of adaptive programmes that have supported wider UK diplomatic objectives, particularly in sectors we know will be high on the FCDO agenda – security and fragility, for example, and private sector development.

Third, we need to start engaging the FCDO not around the merits of the adaptive development agenda, but around specific issue areas that benefit from a more adaptive approach – it shouldn’t be hard, as many HMG priorities easily fall on the complex end of the spectrum already.

Fourth, we should exercise some intellectual humility by looking for approaches, methodologies, and communities of practice that may already engage in adaptive thinking, even if they don’t use our labels – the defence and stabilisation communities, where uncertainty is de rigueur, are likely to be our clearest allies.

Overall, this merger presents those of us invested in adaptive development with a choice: will we continue business as usual, hoping for an invitation from the FCDO that may never materialise? Or will we take this opportunity to rethink our approach and be – dare we say – politically smart and adaptive in our advocacy?

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17 Responses to “The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) merger and the future of adaptive programming”
  1. Priyanthi Fernando

    I really can’t get my head round this article or the concept of adaptive programming…the best examples that you cited are about British led teams working in two West African countries with no visible involvement (and apologies I just glanced at the names of the authors and skimmed the articles) of West African thinkers or institutions. SO what are we in the aid recipient countries losing from this merger?

    • Thank you for your question. This has definitely been a flaw of the agenda, in that much of the tangible work is yet to be documented with partners. From my experience in Ghana, I can relate our partners’ appreciation for a flexible approach to assistance that helps them achieve their goals in ways that are politically smart and respond to new opportunities, while simultaneously empowering them to work more effectively. The alternative that we may go back to, should this agenda be abandoned as part of the merger, is either the UK telling partners “give us a detailed plan for the next three years and we will give you money but only for what’s in it”, or even worse, “here’s some money so that you can do what we want you to do”. Partners are smart enough to deal with that inflexible, narrow-minded mentality and still be able to pursue their own goals, but in my experience they would rather work with a more self-aware, adaptive, and learning-oriented approach to foreign aid.

    • Hi Priyanthi – thanks for this. Just to add to Pablo’s response, if you dig a little deeper into those programmes we mentioned, you’ll see they all explicitly sought out local staff, local management, and leadership. This is partly what makes them such compelling case studies. Adaptive programmes don’t have to be locally led of course, and the drive to experiment, change course/tactics, doesn’t always sit easily with forging strong local partnerships. But in my experience (and as these examples suggest) the most effectives adaptive programmes are those that do empower and provide the space for local reform actors to address complex problems. Hence why it’s so important to preserve the space for these ways of working in the new organisation.

      • James S

        To follow up on Priyanthi’s comment – this is an interesting article but unintentionally highlights a problem with the adaptive programming ‘community’, namely that the original frameworks are still imposed from outside, with little room for locals to question or contribute to the fundamental premises and design. Collaborations + partnerships exist and programmes are adjusted based on feedback but is that the same? Even the most flexible and forward-thinking DFID staff won’t let locals in on a project until its almost too late. This post is really useful in the FCDO context but endless discussions of what DFID or x y or x donor should do give the solipsistic appearance of only being interested in one side of the conversation.

        • This has always been an underlying concern of the adaptive agenda, in that it emerges in Northern circles, so the point is well taken. However, I don’t think there’s sufficient data to claim that frameworks are “imposed from the outside” or that “DFID staff won’t let locals in on a project” (which, in any case, are implemented by providers who are required to work locally). Anecdotally, STAAC-Ghana is managed from the DFID side by non-UK DFID staff; the implementation team mostly comprises Ghanaians; the MEL and PEA advisers who interface with partners on politically-smart and adaptive thinking are local; and the civil society partners are co-owners of strategic decision-making, and of course lead their own intervention work. Similarly, in PERL Nigeria, most of the adaptive and politically-smart work has been led for years by local staff, working with Nigerian organisations – indeed, I would say it is Nigerians who have been pushing adaptation and learning internally within the programme. Granted, these are just two examples. But I would be cautious about assuming imposition – reality is messier than that.

  2. Jaime F.

    Thanks for an insightful article Ed and Pablo. You recommendation to engage sooner rather than later seems wise. The merger of AusAID into DFAT in Australia in 2013 may hold some lessons how our adaptive and thinking and working politically programs transitioned and, in some cases, flourished.

  3. Good to see some forward looking thinking on the DFID-FCO merger. One way things might play out is that the implementation side of DFID’s work becomes too heavy for a ministry like the FCO that needs to be light on its toes. This might then create pressure to hive off the implementation work into an agency keeping the broad policy in the ministry. This is a the approach that many European donors have used for quite some years and some with high quality aid programmes such as SIDA and DANIDA. DFID as a ministry was always pretty unique in the EU, the German BMZ is the only other development ministry, so while it was great to have DFID as a Ministry while it lasted, there are plenty of other examples to learn from in the EU though I know that is not a popular place to look for models these days

    • Hi James – thanks for adding to our potential ‘silver linings’! I really like the suggestion to look at some of the Scandinavian donors for lessons here, as the Australian experience tends to be dominating quite a bit of the conversation at the moment. Again, any reading tips you have on this would be well-received, particularly as I don’t think SIDA or DANIDA are anything like as well-documented as DFID, USAID, and DFAT on the adaptive agenda.

  4. Adam Domino

    The crux of the matter is that FCDO is a government department made up of civil servants. It is not an NGO or a multilateral or set up to ‘operationally’ deliver development assistance (there is so much you can do with so few spread so thinly). This is balanced with giving taxpayer funds to overseas without the ability to see and verify results or evidence and demonstrate the value added of said taxpayer funds. Adaptive programming sounds strangely like giving ill-equipped NGOs money for activities we can seldom closely monitor the freedom to experiment with UK public funds. It seems like a high-risk approach (risk not addressed above).
    There are broadly two types of DFID workers today (for exactly tomorrow, it will be the merged FCDO). There is the specialist who deals with theory (as was Chris Whitty whilst in DFID…and some would argue in his current role) who has no concept of reality but has a great theory that needs testing. And then there is the generalist, who moves within DFID and across other government department. Not necessarily an expert on a single issue but has the ambition and confidence to pull together a quick Ministerial briefing and submission (usually researched from Google) and with some contribution from said specialist. It’s the Generalist who often develop programmes…and often leave others to take up the mantel halfway through whilst they move on to a better posting (usually overseas).
    Maybe it may just be best if our ODA funding is handed over directly to a third party, a consortium of professional British NGOs to be accountable to FCDO and a Parliamentary Commission directly for scrutiny. Maybe only then will our Development assistance be truly free from the influences of politics and tied aid policies.
    Of course, we also need some kind of an exit strategy on development assistance. Now that the 0.7% is written into law, we don’t expect it to be forever…or do we?

    • Heather Marquette

      While this isn’t really how generalists/specialists work, I’ve never seen anyone suggest something like a 3rd party NGO-led delivery unit before. Do you have any background reading on this?
      I agree that all delivery models entail risk, which is why there’s a lot of evidence out there on this. It would be interesting to hear how what you propose would incorporate/improve existing risk mitigation models. What makes it different to previous calls for ‘arms length’ delivery models, for example? How do you see accountability working, given that implementing organisations (whether NGO, private sector, multilateral, research etc) are already accountable to whichever department is spending UK aid (including both DFID and FCO, as they were), whether a programme is labelled ‘adaptive’ or not, with ministers ultimately responsible to parliament? And does your model require that strategic decisions on how, where and what to spend would be solely held by the NGO consortium, removing that authority from ministers and delinking from foreign and development policy (and from ministerial accountability back to taxpayers)?

  5. Adam Domino

    ‘While this isn’t really how generalists/specialists work’…I beg to differ as someone with over 10 years experience in DFID. It may not be how it should work in theory, however that is exactly how it works out in practice (I can only talk from my lived experience).
    Just on third-party delivery, this model already operates in small ways, for example the START fund and DEC. If the NGO sector consolidates it may be better placed and strengthened to leverage funding and set up as a third-partner and independent Aid agency (quango if you like).

    • Heather Marquette

      START/DEC are interesting programmes, and also interesting examples to make your case given they’re examples of adaptive programmes. Though there isn’t a single model for adaptive programming (which wouldn’t be very ‘adaptive’), these are all of the underlying principles- Having worked in development for the last ten years, you’ll know this of course.
      So what specifically do you think these programmes do well that other adaptive programmes can learn from? They don’t publish their annual reviews on DevTracker so it’s not easy to see, and it would be great to find out more.