However, whilst there are many guides to adaptive management it is something that can be difficult to implement in practice. It is useful for us as a sector to ensure that we go beyond the theoretical and start to have conversations about the implementation of adaptive projects: what is working and what is not.
Christian Aid, Irish Aid, and ODI’s paper from 2018 Learning to make a difference made an important contribution to this. CARE’s new paper Listen carefully. Tread Lightly. Adapt Quickly gives examples from CARE’s UK aid-funded work on the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) project in Somalia to highlight lessons for how to build adaptive programming that can produce high quality results in complex settings.
In our paper we focus particularly on what, including monitoring and evaluation and beyond, has been necessary in order to enable adaptive programming across our Somalia GEC projects. In particular, we have found that:
- Projects that are designed to adapt need funding approaches, results frameworks and governance structures that enable the process of adaptation and we should actively encourage donors to structure projects in ways that make this easier. By looking across three of our Somalia GEC projects we can see that whilst adaptive monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) is vital for flexible, adaptive programming we cannot stop there. In the case of our recent GEC programming this has included the introduction of review and adaptation meetings, and budget and milestone flexibility.
- Adaptive projects benefit from both strong participatory elements and from governance structures that enable adaptation. Without shifting dynamics around decision making and incorporating diverse voices it can be difficult to account for issues of power, and to adapt to changing contexts.
- Adaptive management requires resources. For this reason, lower budget projects can find it harder to resource these approaches. Where the expected change is complex, adaptation is frequently necessary and should be adequately resourced if we are to expect results.
At CARE, we have seen improvements in the adaptability of programming since new and more flexible governance structures were introduced to GEC, however this approach would benefit from more in-depth analysis to understand across the GEC portfolio – but also in new funding streams and new projects – what the results of this have been. This will help to provide a platform for understanding how such approaches can be used most effectively and might be scaled across other programmes and donors to enable more meaningful adaptation within rigorous accountability structures.
Given the importance of adaptive approaches to be able to deal with complex environments, we should be realistic in our expectations to be able to deliver complex change without adequate resources. In an environment where many INGOs work consistently within complex environments, the sector also needs more opportunities to trial these approaches.