Reflecting on adaptiveness in T4T&A initiatives

26 October 2016

Current calls for more adaptive approaches to development resonate with existing attempts to increase adaptiveness in other fields, like software development and service design. The IDS Digital and Technology Cluster is researching the relationship and potential synergies between adaptive approaches in different disciplines – with a special focus on tech for transparency and accountability (T4T&A) initiatives.

Responding to complexity in development

The concept of adaptiveness – of 'being adaptive' – is simple. It means that when you confront problems in complex and dynamic environments, you need to be able to recognise, as quickly as possible, whether or not your strategies are working, and use this awareness to continuously adjust or replace them with better ones. To be adaptive means to be flexible, reflective and really able to learn – something that is very difficult to achieve.

As long ago as the 1830s, Charles Darwin established that all animal species had to adapt to the changing world to endure. This need to evolve applies equally to humans, to the communities we form, and to most of the projects that we undertake – including development projects.

The contexts in which international development institutions operate are among the most complex, dynamic and unpredictable that can be imagined. They demand an extraordinary adaptive capacity. But the corporate cultures, organisational structures, operating procedures and behavioural incentives of international development institutions are often quite the opposite: they favour projects and programmes that are mostly designed and executed in a linear, bureaucratic and unreactive way.

Despite its high failure rates, the development industry has been slow to overcome its cognitive biases against adaptiveness. Many development professionals are forced to achieve impact by finding room for manoeuvre and discreetly circumventing some of the formal rules imposed on them. Working at different positions in the development system, these ‘positive deviants’ (pdf) have succeeded in being adaptive and responsive where others have failed. And their persistent calls for more adaptive development practices – which are politically smart, locally driven, iterative, long term and driven by evidence and learning – are starting to be heard.

New approaches to adaptiveness

Several development actors are now experimenting with adaptive approaches in their programmes. These include donors such as USAID, DFID, Sida, GIZ, the World Bank and UNDP; NGOs like Oxfam and Mercy Corps; and research institutions including IDS, ODI and CID. They are all using slightly different approaches, each with its own acronym:

The multiplicity of acronyms and approaches has created some confusion, but fortunately there is networking among the different initiatives and a genuine desire to learn from each other. And despite the range of names and approaches, these all share the core values and intentions of adaptiveness.

Will this adaptiveness gain enough momentum to instil agility in the development sector? It is too early to tell; it will depend on the capacity of these approaches to deliver extensive and undeniable value, and operationalise their learning in ways that can be used extensively across many different settings.

One weak spot of the adaptive development movement could be that the different approaches are all too similar. They tend to look at complexity from the perspective of (senior) Northern development professionals and researchers, who reflect on how things should be done differently based on their extensive experience – but in quite a top-down way. There is not enough communication with actors in different positions, or attempts to learn from adaptive approaches in other fields.

The IDS Digital and Technology Cluster is addressing this through a pilot research project, funded by Making All Voices Count, which looks at the contribution of adaptiveness to the success of T4T&A projects, and the potential synergies between the different kinds of adaptiveness required in T4T&A initiatives. Since 2013, Making All Voices Count has been supporting the use of both technological and non-technological approaches to promoting responsive and accountable governance in 12 countries in Africa and Asia. It funds adaptive research, and supports capacity building and learning for all actors involved in the programme, from funded partners to officers to programme managers.

Adaptive thinking in T4T&A initiatives

A typical example of a T4T&A initiative in the global North is fixmystreet.com, a website established in 2007 that enables UK residents to contact their local authorities about problems such as potholes or broken streetlamps. Residents submit a report, which is then published on the platform, enabling a public, two-way communication about the problem.

Now imagine that you wanted to create something similar in Uganda (www.fixmycommunity.ug); think about all possible challenges you would face – the many technical, social or political aspects of the Ugandan context that could see your initiative fail, if not properly addressed.

Because T4T&A initiatives combine technological complexity with socio-political and organisational complexity, they are an especially challenging proposition for adaptive development. A T4T&A project in a developing country typically involves many tasks at different interconnected levels, for example:

  • Designing software tools that satisfy the real needs of the intended users.
  • Integrating them into technologies and processes that are suited to their context of use.
  • Managing the implementation and maintenance of the project in a dynamic governance context. 
  • Connecting the project with the wider programme, which should itself nurture the project’s flexibility in order to achieve the desired development impacts.

Adaptive thinking in ICT supported T and A initiatives diagram

Our framework for adaptive thinking in ICT-supported T&A initiatives identifies four main levels at which high degrees of complexity need to be addressed. For each level, we have identified existing disciplines and approaches that have the potential to guide adaptation and learning. These disciplines could learn much from each other. For example, many methods, tools and processes, and even mindsets from practitioners of ‘agile software development’, have been perfected and put into operation over time; these could act as ‘building blocks’ to inform and inspire proposals to tackle complexity in international development. And the opposite also holds true: design thinking has much to learn from the struggles and extreme contextual awareness demanded by ‘adaptive management’ approaches.

As a computer scientist turned activist–entrepreneur turned development researcher, this kind of transdisciplinary questioning and learning seems essential to me. And this is what we will investigate in the coming months.

How will we do our research?

We will analyse several initiatives funded by Making All Voices Count in Kenya, paying special attention to their stories of adaptation and learning. We will gather the views and knowledge of the participants in these T4T&A initiatives, from users and software developers, through grantees and public workers, to project and programme officers. Each of these groups have valuable experience of what enables adaptation in their projects and what discourages it, which deserves to be reflected upon. By collecting their perspectives, hopes and frustrations, we aim to influence and enrich wider discussions on adaptiveness and development, using the voices and needs of those working on the ground.

Our study includes the following phases:

  1. Research on the parallel adaptive knowledge streams that we have identified as relevant for T4T&A initiatives.
  2. Desk research about Making All Voices Count projects, analysing the tools developed and the project documentation and reports.
  3. Interviews with participants in the Making All Voices Count programme and, eventually, other T4T&A initiatives, to collect their experiences and views on adaptiveness.
  4. A collaborative workshop at the South to South Lab in Nairobi, Kenya
  5. Communication of the research results, and active engagement in discussing and enhancing them. 

We will publish further details about the workshop and the research in future blog posts.

What do you think?

Let us know in the comment sections. If you would like to participate in the research in any way, please get in touch.

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