Adaptive Management: A Radical New Approach to Programming in EiCC Contexts

Hello ECCN colleagues, I hope that the following and subsequent blogs will trigger a rich discussion among ECCN members about how best to incorporate concepts of adaptive management and emergent theories of change into USAID Goal 3* programs. PLEASE JOIN THE DISCUSSION by responding to this blog, and sharing your own ideas and related links, research, cases and evaluations that exemplify how ‘Adaptive Management’ and an emergent theory of change can work for education programming in crisis and conflict.

At the USAID Education Summit last month there was a strong call from a range of participants for increased education program flexibility, responsiveness and adaptation in contexts of crisis and conflict. These repeated references echoed my own conclusions and signal a growing recognition, by USAID and DfID among others, of the need to ‘Do Development Differently,’ particularly in crisis and conflict affected environments. In this first of a series of blogs on the topic, I provide an overview of what we heard at the Education Summit regarding USAID and DfID’s steps towards more adaptive programming.  In a rich Education Summit panel discussion on Responsive Practice: Lessons from Collaborative Learning, Stacey Young from the USAID/PPL Bureau, described the Agency’s policy shift towards Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) at the Mission and program cycle level, and described the considerable resources and cases available through PPL’s Learning Laboratory site.

Stacey’s remarks are indicative of similar changes in thinking at the Agency. For example, USAID’s Global Development Lab has launched a new initiative on “Adaptive Programing Using Real-Time Data” with an RFP asking for concepts, cases and evidence that demonstrate how real-time data systems can enable a more adaptive and participatory approach to development in complex settings.

Interestingly, while Stacey was presenting the CLA initiative at the Education Summit, USAID was co-hosting a workshop in the UK with Ben Ramalingam of ODI on Adaptive Management, explaining that development agencies and partners need to place greater emphasis on emergence and context. Rather than assuming we have answers that need to be implemented and evaluated, we need to put in place a network and approach to generate those answers when and where they are needed.

Meanwhile, back at the USAID Education Summit, Anna French, the head of the UK’s Department of International Development (DfID) Education office, described in her presentation for the Theory of Change for Education in Crisis and Conflict panel, a recent review and redirection of DfID programs, noting that:

  • The use of tools and practices was too rigid and constrained the ability to adapt to changing circumstances;
  • Programs reflected a lack of trust within the Department, and with implementing partners and host-country organizations;
  • There was high risk aversion due to fear of failing to meet expectations and outcomes.

As part of its redirection, DfID developed SMART rules for program design: a commitment to let context drive development programming; become more flexible, innovative and adaptive; and provide incentives for learning before, during and after a project. This involved a shift from less focus on rules, competition and risk avoidance toward guidance, enabling learning, collaboration, trust and risk management. The four key elements of DfID’s policy shift required that the Department:

  • Focus on process: conventional program management tools tend to ignore process elements, treating projects as closed, controllable and unchanging systems.
  • Prioritize learning: move emphasis from monitoring and evaluation (M&E) to learning and adaptation (L&A).
  • Be locally led: let’s drop alienating and confusing terminology and focus on genuine debate and discussion with partners over goals, strategies and practice, engaging local organizations to co-create a shared theory of change.
  • Think compass not map: typically development projects are designed with a roadmap to get from here to there, a logframe with a set of implicit assumptions about a predictable and stable future. Far more useful is the idea that program design should be a ‘compass for helping us find our way through the fog of complex systems, discovering a path as we go along.’ Acknowledging ‘complexity’ does not mean ditching planning processes altogether, but recognizing that often plans reflect best guesses about the future, and will likely shift over time.

*USAID Goal 3 relates to education in crisis- and conflict-affected environments (EiCC).

You can access the short and challenging ODI paper that more fully explains these elements in Theories of Change: time for a radical approach to learning in development by Crag Valters.

Did this blog spark your own thinking? Remember to comment on this blog and respond to my opening question: how best to incorporate concepts of adaptive management and emergent theories of change into USAID Goal 3 programs. Also, contribute your links to research, cases, evaluations that exemplify ‘Adaptive Management’ and an emergent theory of change in Goal 3 projects in the comment section below.

Coming Next: The link between complexity and the use of rapid and rolling assessments, and feedback loops, in Goal 3 contexts.

Posted in Design, Implement, Research and Evaluate for Better EiCC Programs, Theories of Change
2 comments on “Adaptive Management: A Radical New Approach to Programming in EiCC Contexts
  1. Profile photo of Ash Hartwell Ash Hartwell says:

    Jeanne, thanks for this critical observation. As you note, a key feature of Education in Crisis and Conflict-Affected Environments (Goal 3) is that the context changes – it is unstable and unpredictable, with often rapidly changing government and agency leadership, movement of displaced people – including children and youth, loss of social cohesion. In these cases, trying to build ‘evidence’ of what works is highly problematic, since standard tools of sampling, comparison groups, baselines and impact analysis presume stable and discrete interventions across comparable sites. Thus we find little ‘hard evidence’ of what works in these contexts (as noted by the recent review of literature by Dana Burde:

    Recent work on ‘developmental evaluation'(Michael Quinn Patton), Feedback loops (see D.Whittle), and much other recent literature, provide ways forward. But there is a long way to go to see these approaches regularly embedded within the design and management of Goal 3 projects so as to actually provide examples of evidence-driven programs. I plan to do a blog soon on this and would welcome your insights/contributions.

  2. Jeanne Moulton says:

    Hi Ash, thanks for this discussion. It seems to me that the context of fragility and conflict will strongly influence any theory of change to be considered by the ECCN community. We are not looking at change in a relatively stable or static situation in which we intend to initiate change. Instead, we are looking at a highly dynamic situation and perhaps aiming to manage change that is already underway.

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