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28 April 2016

Adaptive programming

Adaptive Programming

Key conclusions

·      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.

Adaptive programming

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.

No actor is neutral

Although many development practitioners like to think of themselves and their organisations as neutral, the truth is that they are not. 

The perceptions of others are what really count.  And understanding how those perceptions might colour a potential partner’s engagement with a programme is key. 

Recognising that donors and the groups who implement their programmes are usually assumed to have an “angle”; and understanding what it might be and how it influences the behaviours of others is vital. 

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.
Shaping an intervention

Making sure that a proposed programme is well founded and has realistic expectations of the changes that are possible is vital to programme success.  Working with partners and also with donors to help them understand the art of the possible is a core programme activity.  In this respect it is as important to understand the political economy in which the donor operates as it is to understand the one in which citizens and potential partners operate.

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.

Skilful navigation

Within this context, then, the ability of the implementer of a programme to convene all the actors in a safe space and to understand the wider context is essential.  The art of delivering an  adaptive programmes is the ability to understand and work towards a wider programme goal whilst all the time fine tuning implementation against the back drop of what is politically possible.

Traditionally development programmes have planned to work in an orderly way through a series of milestones towards a clearly defined end point – much like orienteering, a sport in which contestants run from known fixed point to known fixed point as quickly as possible. 

But adaptive programming is a little bit more like sailing a boat in stormy weather.  In order to arrive at the desired destination, “skilful navigators” need to work constantly to adapt to the effect of wind and tide; and always need to know exactly where they are, bearing in mind that sometimes it is necessary to go backwards in order ultimately to make progress.  In this way, the final destination is reached by the most efficient possible route – even if, thanks to the elements, it was not the one upon which the sailor had originally embarked.

Key conclusion:
Sustainable change is behaviour change

Development programmes cannot, alone, bring about change.  But they can influence the behaviour of the people who make up society and its institutions.  The essence, then, of adaptive programming is to promote behaviour change in order to influence the rules of the game and to contribute towards change over time.

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.

Feedback counts

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.   

Key conclusion:
Learning is essential

Without a designed-in capacity to learn, adaptive programmes will be unable to focus on their overall programme goals, leaving them vulnerable to mission creep or misplaced donor expectations.  Learning involves discovering not just “what” to do, but “how” to do it in the local context.  The learning that such programmes develop do not just shape their actions, but they inform the choices which are made about them by others.  Donors who understand the context better will make longer-term investments.  Partners who see that programmes understand their reality will engage more fully.

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.

Key conclusion:
Opportunity matters

Sometimes, despite significant efforts to promote change, nothing happens.  But at other times, change happens almost out of the blue.  Adaptive programmes cannot guarantee change, but they can help to promote opportunities for change. They can help to prepare for a time – or opportunity – which has not yet come.  Often, the key factor which makes change possible turns out to be chance. 
Natural disaster – or dramatic political change – can sometimes provide an opportunity for intervention.  Being positioned to identify and exploit such opportunities in a timely manner is an important capability of an adaptive programme.

Strategic patience

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.

Flexible approaches

Adaptive programmes are all about flexibility.  But having the actual flexibility to meet goals requires more than just an intellectual understanding of progress.  In the same way that the programme needs to be flexible, programme management needs to be able to adapt to a changing environment.  Fixed budgets and rigid staffing structures, as well as procurement mechanisms designed more for commercial contractors than fragile partners can all constrain a programme’s ability to be flexible and exploit opportunity.

Impressions count

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. 

Key conclusion:
Know your donor

Hidden beneath the formal language of donor positions and contracts are real people.  Understanding them, and the pressures and incentives which play on them (including as, over time, the key personalities change), is every bit as important as understanding the local context.  Developing positive relations with donors helps to smooth out the dialogue with them, ensuring that challenges and changes can be explored in a neutral manner.  Where you have multiple donors, time spent upfront harmonising their focus is time well spent.

Key conclusion:
Identity counts
Who you are matters just as much as who you represent.  It conditions how interlocutors perceive programmes; and how they respond to it. As the implementer of a donor funded programme, people’s expectations of your interests and conduct will be shaped from the outset.  How you work in an inclusive way to increase collaboration and develop shared understanding between actors will also, over time, determine the level of trust in your programme. Managing and shaping partner perceptions (as well as donor and other local perceptions) is key; and seeking to be more than just another donor matters.

Political Economy Analysis

Political Economy Analysis (PEA) is…

“I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is.
Deep Thought, the computer designed to calculate the answer to the ultimate question of life,
the universe and everything in Douglas Adam’s book the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,
after seven and a half million years of working on the problem.

…about people

Although often billed as a mapping of events and institutions, it is really people who shape both.  (Although there are times when even the best intentioned people are unable to overcome the effects of a poorly conceived programme or an inappropriately designed institution.)  So, however billed, a PEA is essentially about the motivations and incentives which surround key people; and their interaction with the world around them.  These motivations and incentives might be relatively formal – known political affiliation; salary; opportunity; corruption; profile; status; etc.  Or they may be much more informal such as family and clan affiliation and the need to (be seen to) deliver advantage for others.  PEA is, therefore, about why people do what they do.  And the why can change in subtle and hard to notice ways, sometimes delivering substantial – and unexpected and sometimes unwelcome - changes in the what.

But by understanding the motivations and incentives which play on key actors, it is often possible to shape a programme’s engagement or message to deliver benefit.  Seeing programme ambition through the lens of its counterparts is key to how it makes a difference.

…a process not a product

But the motivations and incentives which shape the environment within which key choices are made are dynamic – and not in any way static.  Following the external factors which affect the environment – and the behaviour of those within it – helps a programme to sense change in the air and to predict (or, perhaps more accurately, guess) how key interlocutors may adapt their behaviour.

In this respect, the practice of political economy analysis is a continuous process of identifying change and calculating how that change can be influenced – often by programmatic means.  It follows, therefore, that programme teams should always simulate the effect of their choices on others in order to avoid unexpected and/or unwelcome outcomes.  This requires a strong interface between strategy teams and their associated programmers.  The two disciplines should make choices informed by each other’s insights and experience.

This is not to suggest that there is not value in a formal PEA product – employed, for example, as part of the analysis underpinning an inception report.  But if the value of this product is not to be measured merely in crude terms such as weight, length or word count, it should be specifically focussed on the targets of the programme; and should avoid nugatory or self-serving content.  (There is a tendency to “arm” programmes – particularly during inception phases – with lengthy PEA texts which consume resources to produce and read and which provide little by way of operational guidance to decision makers.)  It should also avoid the temptation to employ a top down approach which seeks to bend programme reality to a theory of change developed in the abstract.

But there are political risks associated with drawing up and writing down a political economy analysis.  There is a danger that key but fragile relationships could be harmed if the analysis is ever divulged; and a risk that that the analysis generated by a programme fails to “fit” the world view of the donor.  Censoring – self or otherwise – a political economy analysis risks trapping programmes teams between the vanities of a donor and the insecurities of partners.  In this respect, seeing PEA as a process helps to mitigate the political risks associated with them as the activity can be portrayed as ongoing learning, rather than one of judgement and pronouncement.

…an art not a science

There are very few “right” answers in political economy analysis.  At their very best, PEA is a guide to interpretation of events and behaviour.  This requires an acknowledgement that they are often as much about “feel” as they are about facts.  (For example, the original – and factually established – causes of a grievance or a conflict are often lost in the mists of time, and a new set of more self-serving motivations and incentives have colonised the original ideology.  Under these circumstances, an account of historical events is of general interest but does little to explain current behaviour.)

…better crowd-sourced than constructed by a lone wolf

The development and use of PEA is essential to making programmes effective.  But, being based as much on “feel” as on facts and being all about the motivations and incentives which play on the behaviour of people, is often a matter of perspective.  Ensuring the PEA approach in use by a programme is as appropriate as possible means ensuring that it both draws on a range of sources – “diversity of reception” – and is not skewed by personal and/or political bias.  Whilst the task of coordinating PEA may fall to one person on a programme team, or perhaps a small group, it should not be left to perspectives of that individual or small group.  PEA should draw on and be informed by a wide range of views and ideas, most easily available from within the programme community – the programme team and its partnerships.  To a large degree, political economy analysis should be “brokered” from within the team and led by them, although it should not be allowed to become a lowest common denominator.

Often, PEA work is carried out by an external actor. Although such an external actor can bring a wealth of experience to the process and the ability to ask what might seem obvious questions, the eventual analysis needs to be owned by the programme team.  Wherever possible, the role of the external actor should be to facilitate the generation and application of analysis from within the team – to carry it out “with” them and not to deliver it “to” them.

…is a tool for asking better questions rather than getting a definitive answer

So, in essence, PEA is not about getting answers at all.  But about improving the questions that a programme team asks of itself as they attempt to integrate their goals with the realities which they encounter in their working and private lives.  By having better questions, teams will be better placed to identify a set of potentially better answers.