· Sustainable change is behaviour change. Understanding the incentives which govern why people do what they do is essential.
· Learning is essential. Programmes that cannot learn cannot operate in a dynamic or challenging context.
· Opportunity matters. Change - of any kind - is not guaranteed to happen; and sometimes the difference between success and failure can be down to how programmes make opportunity work for them.
· Know your donor. Getting to know the people who will make choices about programmes – both before they start and when they are underway – makes dealing with challenge and change easier.
· Identity counts. Programme teams need to be more than “just another donor”; and be able to work across cultural, political and economic divides. History in a context and working to build trust, collaboration, understanding and inclusion matter.
Donors are increasingly seeking adaptive approaches to delivering development programmes. Whilst there is plenty of theory about the approach such as this, there is somewhat less helpful guidance on how to go about it, although this this and this offer some sensible starting points.
Development is about politics
Development is an ever evolving discipline. It is increasingly recognised to be a political intervention. And often the desired outcomes for development programmes implemented in complex environments are really about achieving change.
There is a growing body of literature about this. Thinking and Working Politically (TWP), Doing Development Differently (DDD) and Problem Driven, Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) are some which shape donor approaches today. And there is a growing interest in understanding how change happens as well as awareness that the answer is rarely purely technical.
But such programmes are seldom merely about a single developmental outcome. Increasingly, donor interventions take place in the wider context of donor interests which (depending on the context) might include global security, trade promotion and/or the rule of law.
Understanding the wider backdrop to donor interests is key to delivering the programmes that they fund.
Politics is about life
Key to successful implementation of an adaptive programme is understanding where power lies; why change happens; and how. Understanding the incentives – and disincentives - which play on the people who make the choices is key to this. And some of those incentives might not be the ones which implementers and donors would wish them to be.
Implementers of adaptive programmes also need to understand that they are governed, to a degree, by the domestic politics of their – sometimes multiple - donors too. Like the local context, donor priorities and interests change over time. So keeping a careful eye on wider donor policy objectives is a key task too.
Life is about people
The logical starting point for this kind of programming then, is to begin with where people find themselves now; and then to go with the grain, accompanying them on their journey rather than a route defined by others. Understanding how people interact with the politics of their context, with institutions and with donors is therefore essential. They will be as much governed by the class, family, ethnic group, religion and society from which they come as by a shared understanding of the anticipated developmental benefit of a proposed donor programme.
Learning to read and understand the motivations of key actors is essential. Complex political economy tools are available, but the Everyday Political Analysis (EPA) tool is a straightforward and helpful starting point. The essential point of this activity is to generate a shared understanding and analysis of the political context that informs all the relevant actors – citizens; partners; programme staff; and donors. How this shared analysis is arrived at and maintained will depend on the context and the motivation of those involved. But this kind of political economy work should be seen as a process more than a product; and should be considered a live and evolving activity.
People shape the context
As with the pressures which play on the people with whom an adaptive programme might work, the context within which it operates shifts all the time. This requires programmes constantly to monitor the environment within which they work; and to test and adjust their stance and interventions on a continual basis.
Over time, the practice of monitoring the context continuously translates into a form of learning culture. Rather than continuously discovering “new” aspects of the environment, adaptive programmes start to learn how the rules of the game play out. They – the people they employ; the partners they reach; wider stakeholders - stop observing the system as outsiders and start understanding it as actors. The ability to form and network relationships and understanding with and between this wide range of relevant actors is how the sum comes to add up to more than its parts.
The ability to know that a programme is being effective is critical. This requires an ability to gather and understand almost real time data. Monitoring, evaluation and learning are vital tools in an adaptive programme. They help the programme management to switch resources between activities based on a rapid assessment of the return on investment that they represent. Perhaps more importantly, they provide a way for partners and programme management together to plan strategically in order to learn from both success and failure, and to realise a shared vision. In this way, evaluation ceases to be something which is done “to” partners; and is welcomed as a part of forward thinking strategic planning.
But learning from success is only part of the story. Understanding what has not worked – and why – is possibly more helpful than knowing that an intervention is working as predicted. A programme culture which ranks success on an equal footing with an ability to draw positive lessons from any activities which do not deliver as anticipated is likely to be more successful than one driven by quantitative measures alone. It is often the less successful interventions which offer the greatest potential for learning about how to be successful.
In designing a monitoring, evaluation and learning strategy for an adaptive programme, it is important to focus on the programme’s contribution towards a desired change, rather than only on the inputs that it has made.
In this approach, care must be taken to avoid diluting or undermining the important issue of local ownership. Adaptive programmes exist to support the efforts of others, not to create a profile for themselves. The egos of the programme team – and any desire on the part of donors to “brand” success as theirs – needs to be left firmly at the door.
Conditioning the environment
Shaping the choices that donors make is a key opportunity – one which only really occurs before a formal decision to contract an activity is taken.
Donor choices are not always as well founded as they might be; and may be a response as much to their domestic political context as anything else. The view from within an Embassy is not always the same as the view of an Embassy from the outside. Programme staff can play an important role in helping donors to remain focused on what is politically, technically and socially possible in the prevailing context. But the extent to which this is possible from within an ongoing programme is limited. Permanent in-country representation which pre-dates a programme and will endure beyond its end offers implementers a greater stake in the choices about what to do and how to do it. Employing this capacity to shape donor choices and expectations before they are formalised is a useful investment in helping adaptive programmes hit the ground running.
An essential element of conditioning the environment within which choices about what to do and how to do it are made is the need for time. Many of the changes that adaptive programmes seek to promote may only become truly evident long after their formal end. Although change might happen quickly, it might equally happen very slowly indeed; and it may be that a programme’s contribution to that change is difficult to discern until some time has passed. Programme teams and donors need to understand the value of strategic patience in ensuring that their interventions can be as effective and sustainable as possible. As a general rule, the stakeholders in a change have not read the logframe developed between donors and programmes; and will embrace change at their own speed and on their own terms.
Programme teams occupy a contested space between donors and local actors. To be really effective in the local context – to play more than just a “donor” role – programmes need to draw on an identity that is attractive to partners; one which inspires them to work with the programme in the way that it wants and needs. Adaptive programmes need to be able to convene people in safe spaces, to facilitate processes, help to connect expertise to issues and facilitate the development of capacity. Key to this is legitimacy. This legitimacy stems from the ability to employ the right people; to empower them with knowledge and understanding; adopt ways of working with others that demonstrates respect for local agendas; and is based on enduring and trusting relationships founded on shared values and principles.
Implementers of adaptive programmes need to be clear about “who” they are; and in whose interests they are working. Maintaining at least a local perception of independence from donor politics is essential. This task is made considerably easier if the programme team can trade on a long established reputation for trust, understanding, collaboration and inclusion.