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August 4, 2016

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August 4, 2016

What is Adaptive Aid? Useful lessons from six case studies

August 4, 2016
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Move over ‘Innovation’, ‘Adaptive’ is the new fuzzword on the block – stick it in front of ‘learning’, ‘management’, Adapting Aid cover‘programming’ or ‘aid’ if you want to sound up to the minute. Dave Algoso and Alan Hudson wrote a handy overview on this blog recently. But to get an idea of the substance, it’s also worth reading Adapting Aid, a synthesis of six case studies by the ADAPT (Analysis Driven Agile Programming Techniques – groan) programme run jointly by Mercy Corps and IRC. The anonymous authors are Jon Beloe, Alison Hemberger, Philippa Hill and Emma Proud (I had to email to find out!)

The six studies include everything from agricultural market development in Uganda, to basic health in Myanmar, to using on-the-ground informants in Niger to trigger rapid relief response. There’s also a revealing comparison of what happened when Ebola struck two projects (one adaptive, one rigid) both working on education in Sierra Leone.

The synthesis draws out five lessons for adaptive aid. Here they are, with my ramblings in italics

  • Dynamic and collaborative teams
  • Appropriate data and reflective analysis
  • Responsive decision-making and action
  • Agile and integrated operations
  • Trusting and flexible partnerships

All of these could easily degenerate into management platitudes (have you ever heard a manager say ‘screw agility, we need to be more sclerotic’?), but there’s real substance there.

Dynamic and collaborative teams. How? Hire local and hire for an adaptive mindset; Foster open communications and a collaborative culture; Provide mentorship and coaching.

In Uganda’s RAIN program, recruitment interviews included problem-solving scenarios or trips to the market to see how candidates analyzed context in real-time. The contextual knowledge and analytical skills of these team members were invaluable in several program pivots.

Important, and difficult. National and subnational aid offices can often be very hierarchical places, with expats at the top, jealously guarding their status. Adaptive aid means both turning that upside down, and recognizing that we need to hire, appreciate and keep more mavericks and entrepreneurs, not just planners.

Adapting Aid 1Appropriate data and reflective analysis. How? Keep an eye on the context and surrounding systems, by leveraging multiple forms of data through multiple channels; Dedicate analytical capacity, with time and space for reflection.

Deliberately build large networks of external informants, including partner organizations and community leaders, which contribute data back to the program. “Soft” data sources, such as field staff observations, are also valued.

This is really difficult, especially in cash-strapped ‘urgency of now’ environments where everyone can get sucked into the action, and reflection gets endlessly postponed to ‘when things calm down’ (which they never do). Clearly separating the analytical staff e.g. into a research team, can help, but that risks marginalizing them from decision-making.

Responsive decision-making and action. How? Connect decision-making to the analysis and reflection processes; place decision-making authority as close to front-line staff and partners as possible.

The project in Sierra Leone responded to field staff’s observations with multiple pivots, such as providing stipends to community teachers after school closures reduced their funding from the host communities, and providing small learning groups with pencils, papers, and books when the economic shut-down made these unaffordable. These decisions were made by the field-based project manager, in consultation with the senior education manager and education coordinator.

This makes total sense, but relies on confident, empowered staff and a good relationship with funders that allows you to depart from the project plan in response to events and then explain afterwards (see below). The report also highlights the importance of scenario planning and inception periods in strengthening an ‘act→reflect→adapt’ way of working.

Agile and integrated operations. How? Bridge the gap between programs, operations, and finance teams; Create mechanisms for rapid procurement, grants, and contracts.

Operations and finance teams that would otherwise default to standardized procedures – which typically are designed for a stable context and pre-designed program – must find ways to adapt accordingly. These support teams are better placed to facilitate adaptation if they work closely with the program team.

The South and Central Syria program has faced delays when adding new partners and providing sub-grants under



funding from the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), whose approval process can take up to five weeks. In contrast, the UK Department for International Development (DfID) requires only notification (rather than approval) of new partnerships.

Some excellent operational nuts and bolts here, such as including “master purchase agreements” that pre-approve vendors, increased financial approval levels of field staff, and use of “fixed amount awards” that allow sub-grants without burdensome screening or financial reporting.

Trusting and flexible partnerships. How? Plan for adaptation in budgets and outcomes reporting; Keep organizational boundaries permeable.

Two of the biggest constraints on adaptation are rigid reporting (which lock projects into focusing only on pre-planned activities, outputs, and outcomes) and rigid budgets (including both spend/burn rates that require hasty program activity, without time for analysis or reflection, as well as immovable budget lines that prevent allocation of funding to experimentation and new adaptations). Adaptive programs find ways to loosen both of those constraints.

Moving beyond hierarchical funder-funded relationships to a genuine partnership is hard, but essential if ‘good donorship’ is to support adaptive aid while still ensuring rigour in the approaches used. We really are in this together.

Great stuff – do read the whole report, the bulk of which is devoted to the case studies. More examples tomorrow.


  1. Thanks for highlighting and summarizing this report. Fully support the message and need for flexible, adaptive programmes, which has many hurdles to overcome, notably strict and cumbersome donor regulations, but also highly standardized and bureaucratic processes in NGOs themselves.

  2. Thanks for summarizing, Duncan. Agreed that this is rich stuff. I like the points about “appropriate data” — I think what we’re slowly collectively recognizing is a need (at times) for less ‘rigorous’ but more intuitive monitoring/management information–which I completely agree with. You also make a great point that it’s hard for organizations to create space for actually using/analyzing data in practice. I agree, but I’d argue (based on our recent research http://www.developmentgateway.org/expertise/results/) that the reason most development actors don’t prioritize information analysis is because there isn’t a clear way for them to use that analysis anyway. People don’t prioritize analysis of performance data because because they usually can’t do anything about it anyway–not because they don’t care about results/evidence. Anyway, we have gathered lots of insight on this recently–but my main point is that I think the recommendations made by the team to link operations, finance, M&E more closely, and so on, will actually go a very long way toward creating incentives/space for more effective use of data/evidence.

  3. What the report describes is a sensible orientation to getting results in a changing and mysterious context. Nothing really new for those that remember the process approach or to an entrepreneur. Does anyone remember this HBR report (https://hbr.org/2003/09/why-good-projects-fail-anyway)? But why do public funders still not incentivise such good behaviour? And why are philanthropic funders, as they grow, increasingly becoming like their public buddies? Because of distance from the pain of poverty.

  4. Great stuff! Could relate with a lot of the issues that have been raised. We are in the process of writing a practice note on our project/programme and some of the processes got reinforced as I was reading this.

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