One of the trendiest buzzword in the development and humanitarian sector at the moment is “adaptive management”, which carries heavy-weight in focusing on MEAL practices while remaining neutral to political forces and the increased commercial pressures upon aid spending.
But what does adaptive management mean in practice and what are the key considerations that we should appreciate when we come across this notion?
To respond to these questions, the next few sections are meant to uncover key concepts associated to adaptive management and a concluding remark on how they could be understood in the present institutional donors’ landscape.
1: Recognising the importance to use evidence when taking management decisions
One of the greatest benefits from institutional donors that are increasingly focusing on adaptive management is a widening recognition of the need to learn, iterate and adapt.
Particularly when a programme presents multiple components or when the context is volatile, project managers are supposed to enable rapid changes as soon as the evidence points out at sub-optimal processes, lower results or changing forces in the context of intervention. These types of project adaptations already happen and they are based on numerous factors.
The way to act based on evidence varies significantly depending on willingness and expertise of programme managers and MEAL focal points to work together and review multiple kind of information (financial, programmatic, operational…) in several occasions during a project life cycle. The current trend indicates that input financing is not enough, long-term changes results need proof.
2: Design a management approach that is established on adaptive practices
A recent study commissioned by BOND indicated there are two dimensions to consider when choosing between a more rigid or flexible programme approach. In fact, there are two kind of information needed at the design of a new project: knowledge of what causes change and knowledge of the context where to implement activities. By addressing these two important questions, it will be easier to understand the kind of data to inform how decisions are taken.
For example: do we know enough about the target groups and their needs? Or, do we have enough equipment to improve a certain health/food issue in the areas with the most acute exposure to it? Are we addressing a climate shock or a long-term drought, do climate extremes alternate?
As the table above shows, the more we know about the context and what causes results, the more linear the implementation will be. However, in many cases the issue the project seeks to address is caused by unpredictable shocks that require fast response or complex development issues that require a lot of learning to address effectively. Selected health outcomes are instead more measurable as scientific methods are applicable to the treatment that is typically fully controllable (e.g. vaccines). All these variations inform the management style and the speed needed to make decisions either to adapt to evolving risks or to consolidate results. In both scenarios, data and adequate methods to inform the programme manager are necessary.
3: Design is the beginning of success when it sets realistic outcomes and targets
For the reasons outlined above, the choice of suitable and feasible outcomes is necessary at design.
Since outcomes and impacts represent long-term changes: empowering women financially and socially, building resilience to climate change, reducing chronic food insecurity etc., the ability to forecast and attribute these kind of behavioural or social transformations can be intricate without iterative learning about the context and solutions to the issue under consideration.
Linear expectations can be threats in particular environment and a reduction of social risks among target communities when adopting new behaviours are mitigated in a successful programme.
4: Adapt to donors by expanding monitoring from short to long-term changes
In the table below, DFID graph explains a shift from 100% funding upfront to 100% funding on delivery. This change has profound implications on the modality to use aid since constant evidence review – at times hard to access- will be critical to adapt management approaches in implementing project activities that results to be more transformational than before and with larger outreach.
Managers are supposed to start considering rigorous use of mixed methods (qualitative and quantitative evidence) to inform quick responses to changes in contextual forces or assumptions on how long-term changes are expected.
Traditional ways to measure change through evaluation surveys and loose monitoring systems are unfit when demonstrating long-term changes. A culture of proof need significant organisational shifts to prioritise skills growth in generating and analysing evidence of structural changes and their scale in intervention areas. A possible approach could be strategy testing, focused on monitoring the interests and incentives driving key actors and linking them to efforts to promote critical reforms. Because bringing outcome changes equalise to navigating an unpredictable and complex landscape of interests, plan of activities cannot be rigid and need constant feedbacks and reviews.
5: Final remark: Develop negotiation strategies with stakeholders and funders
One of the first questions that could come up is: why all these complexities are embedded in contracts when there are clear needs in a context of new or chronic shocks?
The reason is that a transition from reactive to forward-looking aid entails greater risks. It is hard to predict and forecast in numbers long-term changes while political pressures and public ownership of development solutions are requesting greater scale of results in depth and breadth.
There is greater agreement around situations of immediate response, to a natural shock for example, but it branches out in many directions when a solutions need to apply to chronic marginalisation and less tangible needs, like empowerment and legal rights.
In figuring out what works, there is also scope and space to negotiate since donors themselves recognise the need for constant learning in volatile and unpredictable contexts. They are open to resource ways to access adequate evidence and inform all their stakeholders.
NGOs along with other development partners remain responsible and in a legitimate position to request adequate funding that are linked with credible monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning systems. How to frame and cost for them from operational conundrums need to become a strategic choice of innovative ways to boost dissemination of complex data in simple and compelling form.
The negotiation will be finally successful when evidence from programmes will be used across multiple teams so that, the story of change will be a narrative with multiple facets but based on the same well-appraised facts from the field, where change happens.