Helen Frankenthaler, Salome

Are we learning to make a difference through adaptive management?

A version of this blog was posted in the Thinking and Working Politically’s May Newsletter

Christian Aid Ireland’s multi-country, multi-year Irish Aid funded Programme Grant II (2017–2022) in Angola, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe was designed to support marginalised communities to realise their rights, reduce violence, and address gender inequality. They opted to move away from a linear programme management approach to explore an adaptive one. The Difference Learning Makes captures the learning from that process on whether and how adaptive programming made a difference.

As Graham Teskey pointed out in his January 2022 reflection piece on Thinking and Working Politically: What have we learned since 2013?, the donor environment for adaptive programming has changed in recent years, and not for the better. Last month on fp2p’s blog, Duncan Green also expressed second thoughts about adaptive management; while in another post, 100 civil society organisations working with the Asia Foundation in 70 countries also revealed some concerns about what they think of adaptive management. The Christian Aid paper presents a far more positive view, as Duncan Green himself has acknowledged. The report found that:

72% of partners surveyed described adaptive programming as the most useful approach to programme management that they have used.”

The report reveals that Christian Aid Ireland’s application of adaptive programming has supported more flexible delivery, which has in turn contributed to better development outcomes. There are good examples of what this looked like in Sierra Leone, El Salvador, and Angola, and Zimbabwe. In Sierra Leone, for instance, several iterations of strategy testing revealed failures in traditional conflict resolution methods by chiefs. After experimenting with a few different things, forming a cattle settlement committee and enacting a local byelaw to regulate land use eventually contributed to conflict reduction, peaceful cohabitation between groups, and even scaling up the byelaw at district level.

Christian Aid’s report suggests that there may be more hope for adaptive management in the emerald isle (Ireland) than in Australia or the UK. As one Irish donor representative put it:

The narrative for adaptive management has been won, but the political space is still very much contested. The space for adaptive approaches is shrinking just when we need them more. If we are going to do adaptive management in a more substantial way, we need to invest in improved systems, culture, and guidance. We need to hear the evidence to justify those investments.

So, it seems that we need a thinking and working politically approach to further build the case for adaptive management for donors who have yet to be convinced. Beyond this, Gray and Carl point to nine factors that determine the effectiveness and impact of using an adaptive approach. These include: 1) leadership; 2) organisational culture; 3) conceptual understanding; 4) staff capacities; 5) partnership approaches; 6) participation; 7) methods and tools; 8) administrative procedures; and 9) the operating context. These should not come as a great surprise — but it is nevertheless highly valuable to have them detailed in the report.

Many of these factors are also internal to organisations themselves. Perhaps the most important is organisational culture. As they say, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”Or in the words of a staff member from Sierra Leone, “unless the right culture is there, none of our tools or approaches would work.” As Gray and Carl found, if organisational culture values political analysis, engages deliberately to influence the political context, and adjusts strategies accordingly, then there can be real benefits.

Christian Aid Ireland has taken a reflective approach to this for some time. I can recall a paper from 2018 on Learning to Make a Difference which analysed some of the growing pains of Christian Aid Ireland’s adaptive management efforts. It’s a good sign that senior staffers co-authored that paper, and the self-critical tone in the new paper seems to be the fruit of thoughtful reflection in Dublin.

Beyond the convincing examples of adaptive management working in practice, and the nine enabling factors, the report also highlights some practical insights on specific methods and tools that are well worth checking out. So, take a look and happy reading!

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Thomas Aston

Thomas Aston

I'm an independent consultant specialising in theory-based and participatory evaluation methods.