What is really stopping the aid business shifting to adaptive programming?

Jake Allen, Head of Governance for Sub Saharan Africa at the British Council, left such a well argued, sweetly Jake Allenwritten comment on Graham Teskey’s recent post that I thought I’d post it separately

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

(HL Mencken said something similar to this, just not as pithily)

With each piece that I read on the topic of how we do development differently, many of which are on this blog, I’m finding myself getting increasingly frustrated, and feeling like this whole line of thought has gone down a cul-de-sac. We’ve been saying the same things for quite a while now, but things haven’t really changed: our development isn’t that different; our thinking and working not that much more political; our programmes not hugely more flexible nor adaptive. Some thoughts:

Old Dog, Old Tricks
There’s an implicit assumption that programmes in the bad old days were rigid, technocratic and uncontextualised, and now we are on the other side of the Rubicon, are the polar opposite. I suggest that programmes were pretty much as adaptive and politically aware then as they are now – for the day-to-day, on-the-ground work, it’s basically impossible not to have been. Maybe you think the bureaucracy and reporting were different, and we used to have to just report on the results we initially set out to achieve, but that’s all changed now? To you I say, you clearly haven’t done a lot of reporting lately. For sure, there’s often now a report heading that says, ‘how were you adaptive?’, but unless the programme’s been explicitly designed as a Doing Development Differently lab rat, you’ll still have to jump through the reporting hoops.

What did we expect? You can’t have all but a few variables remain exactly the same, and expect that injecting some good intentions and a lot of writing was going to change a whole huge system and its embedded culture. Development institutions are, by and large, political bureaucracies. Their cultures and practice need to be understood in this context, with a recognition that these aren’t going to change much or fast, so we need to adapt within the current structures.

The Low Politics of High Ideals
jake allen fig 1A large part of the development world believes, or wants to believe, or at least finds it convenient to claim, that what we do is apolitical. Now I realise at this point there’s probably a whole load of people who’ve sprayed their coffee on the monitor in rage – and for sure there are loads of people and organizations who really are attempting to put the politics and power back into development. What I think is missed is the big picture of aid/development, and therefore the programmes designed within it, as being absolutely tied into big-P Politics: we are operating in other countries and doing things that directly attempt to influence how that country is run. We are only there because we are allowed to be there by their governments, but that license is granted because of the Political consensus and the trade-offs (and sometimes trade) that has been accepted and agreed.

Too Big to Not Fail
What is a programme? It’s lots of things: an idea; a Theory of Change; a vehicle for values; a bureaucratic entity; a thing valued at an amount of money; a way of changing the world. What it’s not is perfect, or a plan for delivery that should be stuck to.

It’s too big to not fail, but actually it’s also too small and too short. It’s too big because actually programmes end up almost always being collections of smaller actions and interventions, which tend to be much more successful because it’s easier to work with smaller geographies: less people, you can see the boundaries of systems; practically more doable; managers can actually hold the whole thing. But rarely do they cohere back to a single entity that forms a consistent whole (other than in the beautiful fictions of the annual report). They’re too small because even a programme of £50m is a drop in the bucket of a national economy. They’re too short because the lofty ideals and impact they aim for are generational.

I think that what underlies this is that we are all involved in a process of attempting to shift the world towards a set of accepted norms and values.

And if we see it like that, then ‘the programme’ starts to make sense: it’s an expression of the striving towards sharedplanned v actual values, which can best be delivered at a local level, and we just have to accept the bureaucratic burden this comes with. It’s our job. But it’s the job of the leaders in the development sector to make and defend this case. A while back Jonathan Glennie made a case for reframing aid as ‘foreign public investment’.  The detail and language aren’t important here; what matters are the ideas that investing in other countries is inevitable, essential and valuable and as public investment should cut across a range of sectors and objectives. It also touches on another important point: that any investment fund would not put pressures to get money out the door above making sure that spending is effective. Development agencies, if operated on a fund basis, would be able to stop, change and retrench funds with ease, making them more effective at delivering their objectives. I’d be interested to hear views on this.

It’s the Smart, Stupid
I return sometimes to DFID’s Smart Rules, which I think were the best recent attempt to get an organisation to change its culture and foster better programming.

People seem to have focused a lot more on ‘Rules’ than ‘Smart’. Smart is about taking all the rules and systems and, even if briefly, putting them to one side and being able to ask ‘what are we trying to do, and how do we do it?’ I should say at this point that I’ve met plenty of people who embody this approach, but they remain the exception – as a colleague says ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Of course you still have to fill the forms and please the bosses and ministers – as I say, recognising the politics and the bureaucracy is essential.

Smart is also only as good as the least smart part of the process. Smart doesn’t work if donors try and subcontract it to someone else, but don’t do it themselves. You can’t tell a programme to be smart if you’re then not going to give it any of the actual ability to do so (yes I’m looking at you, donor in an African country who’s demanding adaptive programming at the same time as enforcing rigid adherence to pre-planned budgets! Not one of my programmes I should add.)

All this isn’t entirely fair to Graham and his original piece. He wasn’t talking about the whole problem, just a bit of it. But this ‘bit of it’ approach – it’s about MEL, it’s about learning, it’s about capacity etc – ends up missing the bigger points and stops us making the changes that will really have an effect.

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10 Responses to “What is really stopping the aid business shifting to adaptive programming?”
  1. Cindy

    Thought provoking as always. Graham’s look at the limits placed on individual performance by institutional culture resonates. I work in a country where almost all formal rules and procedures are ignored in favour of the informal rules- e.g. loyalty to boss or colleagues out-trumps calling out poor or corrupt practice. If agencies and implements wish to contribute to genuine changes/improvements then these informal rules need to be engaged with. And in order to do this programmes need to be able to shift direction as opportunities for change arise. Otherwise we are all just ticking meaningless boxes that reflect the same old, same old…

  2. Ken Smith

    If engaging with informal rules means not calling out corrupt practice and it involves western donors , then these days you run the risk of reading about it in the headlines

  3. Call it ‘adaptive management’ or whatever other mot de la décennie is trending. Sure, the plan should work….as long as, ‘simply’ speaking:
    • the local government confirms its support
    • the support is with the knowledge and consent of related civil society stakeholders
    • succeeding governments within our unreasonably short project implementation time horizon continue support
    • in a country with lifelong leaders, that their support also continues
    • our expatriate staff understand and resonate with the local culture
    • our beneficiary community understands the project’s aims and means
    • we do not lose well-trained and most-valuable staff to raiding or just better opportunities presented by other projects
    • a key staff is not embroiled in a messy divorce affecting her work
    • debilitating security context does not impact our work
    o a natural disaster does not make all community efforts immediately irrelevant and requests to HQ for realigning budget to help our beneficiaries/clients in sectors outside of our usual work does not take several weeks for a decision
    o militant or communal conflicts do not force staff to remain at home
    • our work is not being investigated for perceived or real impropriety
    • we do not alter our principles to appease different requests (the old ‘we stick to our principles, but we do change those principles from time to time’ philosophy)
    • staff are not being squeezed by relatives for work opportunities (in some projects, contracts blatantly given to siblings and other close relatives cannot even be openly questioned)
    • HQ, in another country, does not insist on micromanaging and even forcing its own favourite people (namely sons of high level officers with whom they have negotiated) into positions in the project for which these people are unsuited and inevitably cause simmering dissatisfaction among other staff
    • HQ’s donor, in another country, does not delegate a freshly university- graduated project officer, without formal international experience, to familiarize himself or herself with the project in the field and who decides to make changes in line with his/her exalted position
    • the local diplomatic staff of your HQ or donor country does not pretend to understand the project—or, at least, is modest enough to defer to the project’s management– especially when never having been outside the capital city to the project area and not being familiar with the particular sector or geocultural area at hand
    • longer-term health issues do not crop up among staff
    • there are no competing or overlapping projects with your project to suck relevance out of your collective efforts
    Bottom line: projects are developed and implemented with knowledge available at a particular time; whenever elements –or even the whole context—change, many projects, agencies and governments are incapable, unable, unwilling or slow to adjust. Or, they adjust quickly but inappropriately.

  4. Mary Morgan

    You can never have adaptive programming if staff do not have even the basic understanding of a market system and systems thinking. I have been doing capacity building in our field since the 1990’s and just finished an online course for market development professionals about analyzing markets as complex adaptive systems– and you know what? most of the 19 participants had no clue what a system was, how a market system works and even how to talk with informants to get feedback that would guide them in how to tweak and adapt programming to serve the MARKET’S needs to improve and operate more efficiently and inclusively. UNTIL all staff and professionals in market development anyway know how to analyze a market from a systems perspective, then there will NEVER be adaptive programming. Adaptive programming requires skills in how to pay attention to feedback, identify how actors are self-organizing and what is emerging.

  5. Heather Marquette

    Love this. So much of the current debate on adaptive management in aid seems, at least on the surface, to ignore the actual real politics: civil servants, subject to rules set out by parliaments and treasuries, working with other politicians and civil servants. The Smart Rules aren’t perfect, but they’re a massive step forward. Development doesn’t equal aid, and it’s not only about working with the state, of course, but in aid, imagining that we can exclude aid delivery from rules governing the civil service isn’t a sensible starting position.

  6. Also loving these threads. Definitely stealing “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    For me, one of the most adaptive animals is a network or coalition that spans the system its trying to influence whether municipal planning, food systems, survivors of armed conflict. The best of them can engage Politically and influence social norms. There is something interesting about the way each player has to shift even ever-so-slightly to be in step with the others. And brings that change back to their own nests. The most adaptive people I have met, interestingly, have worn really different hats in their lifetime from bureaucrat to activist to entrepreneur, for example. So, mutts and mutt coalitions, that’s my vote. 🙂

  7. Julian Barr

    Nicely put Jake. As yet, I’m undecided whether adaptive programming will be a rather short-lived paradigm, and there’s a new ‘best thing ever’ around the corner. Or whether a few watered-down elements will get absorbed as the way we generally do things (like participation), and we’ll move on. I share your scepticism that we’re on the verge of a sea change.