What is Adaptive Aid? Useful lessons from six case studies

August 5, 2016

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August 5, 2016

How do you make aid programmes truly adaptive? New lessons from Bangladesh and Cambodia

August 5, 2016
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Lisa profile picFollowing on from yesterday’s post on adaptive aid, a guest piece from Lisa Denney (left), Daniel Harris (middle)Dan profile picand Leni Wild (right)Leni Wild, all of ODI (sorry layout’s gone so weird – it’s cos there’s so many of them…..)

A swelling chorus of the development community has been advocating for more flexible and adaptive programming that can respond to the twists and turns of political reform processes. They argue that in order to achieve better aid outcomes, we need to do development differently. As part of this agenda, ODI and The Asia Foundation, with the assistance of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, tracked and analysed three programmes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Mongolia. These programmes explicitly sought to work politically in practice, using a relatively small amount of money, a relatively short timeframe, and a focus on tangible changes. We followed attempts to achieve environmental compliance and increase exports in the leather sector in Bangladesh, and to improve solid waste management in Cambodia and Mongolia; issues identified for their potential to make important contributions (economic, health, environmental, etc.) to the wellbeing of citizens. Two of our case studies were released this month, telling the story of how the reforms unfolded and shifted strategy to better leverage the incentives of influential stakeholders, as well as the mechanics of how the Foundation supported adaptive ways of working.

How adaptation worked in practice

In each case, the programme teams (led by staff in the Foundation’s local office, and supported by a variety of contracted partners and a wider uncontracted reform network reaching both inside and outside of government) made significant changes to strategy during the implementation phase that helped to address difficult, multidimensional problems. In Cambodia, the team faced a complex and often opaque challenge in which waste collection is characterized by a single company with a long-term confidential contract that is difficult to monitor, a fee structure that does not encourage improved household waste collection, garbage collectors whose conditions do not incentivize performance, and communities that are difficult to access and do not always understand the importance of sanitary waste disposal. With a small Foundation team and limited funding, the approach relied on working with individuals selected as much for personal connections, disposition, and political know-how in working politically and flexibly, as for technical knowledge. The team began by cultivating relations between City Hall and the single contractor providing solid waste management services, then moved to work with the sole provider to improve their delivery, and finally, resolved to end the single contractor model in favour of competition.

DSC_1139In Bangladesh, the team knew from the outset that the absence of space and other features of the current site of Dhaka’s leather tanneries limit growth of the industry as a whole, and the feasibility of establishing treatment facilities for the significant quantities of industrial effluent produced as a part of the tanning process. That effluent is dumped, generally untreated, into the river, generating significant and well-documented social, environmental, and economic costs. The strategy for achieving relocation, however, shifted from developing broad-based consensus from all parties on the need to relocate, to identifying and cultivating relationships among a subset of key entrepreneurs with sufficient market share and influence to lead the charge. This more selective approach allowed the team to focus negotiations on substantive issues that would affect large firm behaviour (e.g. land rights and financing terms), thereby neutralizing the tactics of those smaller tanneries that were simply interested in extracting the maximum value of concessions as a part of the relocation process (e.g. distribution of the government compensation package), without any intention to move and operate tannery facilities at the new industrial estate.

Changes in programme strategy were at times prompted by new information or knowledge. For instance, as the Bangladesh team developed relationships with firms, they learnt more about how incentives to relocate were affected by business interests, allowing them to reframe the relocation issue as one of economic potential rather than environmental compliance. Change was also triggered by new relationships, such as the strong links developed by the Cambodia team with a Phnom Penh Deputy Governor, affording new information and opportunities.

External events played a role. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factories in Bangladesh highlighted the dangers of economic reliance on a single industry, allowing the team to draw attention to potential export earnings in the leather sector as a way to attract the interest of influential members of government. In Cambodia, the outcome of the 2013 election, in which the incumbent party lost a remarkable number of seats, pushed the government to be more responsive to citizen interests in areas that provided a visible dividend – like solid waste management. In both cases, the explicitly flexible approach adopted provided the space to adjust programme strategy and activities to respond to such events.

What was less clear was how to judge when to stay on course and when to change tack. There is a risk that adaptive

Leather tanneries, Dhaka

Leather tanneries, Dhaka

programming responds reactively, without sufficient thought and purpose. This is exacerbated when programmes do not have metrics by which to judge whether the current course of action is having the intended impact (also called ‘actionable metrics’). In the Foundation reforms, teams engaged in ‘strategy testing’ – critically reflecting on their existing theories of change and assumptions every quarter, and testing whether these needed to adapt based on learning and changes in the environment. These methods helped structure and inform such decisions, but available metrics did not always yield clear and decisive guidance. Decisions as to when change was needed often relied on the judgement of good programme managers. While it seems unlikely most programmes will ever be able to rely exclusively on metrics that straightforwardly instruct programme staff how and when to adjust their tactics, as more organisations claim to work adaptively, there is a need to ensure that adaptation is strategic and purposive – rather than a simple ‘finger in the wind’ exercise.

Results

Reform processes are long-term endeavours, but in both cases, progress has been made and the achievements provide cause for optimism; however, in neither is progress a done deal. In Bangladesh, following decades of inaction despite numerous legal and programmatic efforts, the tanneries and government have now made significant investments in infrastructure at the new industrial estate. Yet construction is incomplete and the team has concerns regarding operation and maintenance of the new facilities.

In Cambodia, the government has announced a review of the single-provider contract for waste collection and planning is under way for a new collection system with different providers responsible for different city zones. However, the existing single-provider contract remains in place and the links between contract reform and improved service delivery remain unproven. The extent of truly transformational change will need to be reassessed as events unfold, yet in both cases we see the potential for change not just at the margin, but in the institutions and incentives that will shape behaviour for years to come. In contrast to the persistence of these development challenges in the face of more traditional programme approaches in the past, these results deserve our attention.

More detail on the story of each reform, including the composition of the teams, the specific constraints they faced and the tactics they deployed in response is, of course, available in the full case studies for Bangladesh and Cambodia.

2 comments

  1. I think we need to re-examine the question we are trying to respond to with adaptive management and processes. These cases seem to focus on how program management and project operations adapted to change and to enlightenment from discovery that came out of practice evidence. While good, this responds to a question “how must development actors adapt in response to change?”

    But I don’t think that this is the right question. Should we not ask “how can development actions foster adaptation within complex social systems?” Were we to ask this, we would focus less on how “we” adjust or fine tune, and more on “how change is happening within the system” and “how can development efforts nudge change in ways that achieve sustainable scale”.

    If we continue to focus on reform processes that are defined by predetermined change pathways, where we must simply adapt to enable that to better happen, we only learn to do projects more efficiently according to our own preconceived metrics. We assume that systems are ultimately predictable, albeit complicated. The reality is that systems are complex and unpredictable. Unless we can grasp this and let go of our desire to “make planned change happen” we will simply continue to tinker with the flawed notion of predetermination within complexity.

    It is time to ask a different question.

  2. Thanks for this post. Just getting around to reading it today! I noticed that one of the success factors mentioned in the first example was “the approach relied on working with individuals selected as much for personal connections, disposition, and political know-how in working politically and flexibly, as for technical knowledge”. This I think is the crux of most activities, be they at grassroots or policy level – the attitutude of the people involved. Working with development consultancy work (but having also worked in NGOs, as a volunteer, etc), I can see there are some consultants who stand out because of their enthusiasm, innovation, dedication and flexibility. But the trouble is that we usually work with inflexible tendering processes, whereby it is the number of years of experience in a candidate’s cv that determines whether we win the tender – not whether they are the best person for the job!! And a person with 30 years of experience will usually trump a younger or mid-career person, even though the latter may have exactly the qualities required. It seems to me that NGOs have a lot more room to be flexible.

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