New insights on adaptive management in aid programming

Published on 17 March 2022

Adaptive management is generally considered a ‘good thing’ in aid programming. But do we understand enough about how adaptively managed aid programmes interact with other aid programmes working on similar issues in overlapping locations?

We’ve been working on an UK FCDO-funded programme researching action for empowerment and accountability in difficult settings. Early on we focused on how FCDO supported the use of adaptive management approaches in empowerment and accountability programmes. This gave rise to a framework for considering and understanding the interplay between different elements of adaptive management. 

More recently, we’ve explored adaptive management through a different lens – looking at the interplay between pairs of aid programmes which, to different degrees, are adaptively managed. We researched two FCDO-funded programmes in Pakistan – (the AAWAZ Voice and Accountability Programme and Consolidating Democracy in Pakistan (CDIP)) – and in Nigeria,  PERL (a flagship FCDO adaptive programme) and a World Bank-funded, non-adaptive public sector reform Program-for-Results, State Fiscal Transparency, Accountability and Sustainability (SFTAS).

In this blog, we share three findings from our work:

1. Adaptation is most effective if it is continuously adapting to other aid programmes

We explored how our case study programmes adapted not only to changes in context but also to other aid programmes working directly or indirectly on empowerment and accountability.

In Nigeria, Jigawa and Kaduna State governments are recognised leaders in public sector reform. PERL operates adaptively, supporting civil society engagement and encouraging changes in these governments. SFTAS operates by incentivising state authorities to conform to a pre-set model that’s aligned with the reformist approach of the State governments.

Both programmes are committed to citizen engagement with fiscal governance. PERL has long supported transparent procurement and state-citizen engagement in budget planning and monitoring. SFTAS’s requirement that citizens’ inputs from formal public consultations be published online therefore looked set to reinforce these longer-standing PERL efforts.

But while both programmes seek similar changes in fiscal governance (PERL through direct support, SFTAS through incentivization), SFTAS has a more prescriptive model and less ambitious commitment to citizen engagement than PERL. SFTAS’s adherence to pre-set templates hampers adaptation to shifting power dynamics or to a context evolving in response to other programmes’ efforts. Its lesser ambition on citizen engagement effectively ‘undercuts’ PERL’s hard-won gains.

The two programmes in Pakistan had more synergistic effects. Both were designed to address existing power structures. They happened in sequence, were designed to complement one another, and both took an adaptive management approach, which favoured synergies between them. [It also helped that they had the same implementing agency!]

CDIP capitalised on AAWAZ’s efforts by focusing on increasing women’s voter registration. Explicitly “thinking and working politically”, it expanded into democratic political spaces, building directly on AAWAZ’s earlier efforts to improve the participation of women in politics.

Adaptively-managed programmes tend to be Thinking and Working Politically programmes – manoeuvring within the political economy of state actors, non-state social and political actors and other powerful interests. But they also need to consider the driving forces, strategies and modus operandi of other aid programmes.

Get this right and the adaptively-managed programme can deliver greater benefits and more sustainable results. Get it wrong and the investment in adaptive management can be jeopardised or expectations frustrated.

2. Adaptive management of empowerment and accountability programmes requires continuous analysis – not only of ongoing shifts in the governance environment but also of how other aid programmes are unfolding.

Each programme citizens to interact with different levels of government to be more accountable to citizens.

AAWAZ in Pakistan set out to equip women, youth and excluded groups for political and public participation. When local elections were delayed and certain formal governance spaces suspended, AAWAZ created parallel spaces and modelled democratic practices in them. CDIP then built on this work, registering record numbers of women to vote in the 2018 General Election.

In Nigeria, PERL had worked for years to support government and civil society partnerships to bolster public oversight of procurement practices. SFTAS’s approach to the same problem  was to require a new law, based on a generic UN template which had loopholes. The resulting new Jigawa State law didn’t take into account the advances in public oversight achieved through PERL’s work and was less ambitious than these. Could this missed opportunity have been pre-empted through more careful analysis of the overlaps between the two programmes’ efforts and dynamics?

3. There are times when an adaptively managed programme might need to adapt away from “working with the grain

Where there is an appetite for reform, an aid programme can work hand-in-hand with governments. More benefit is gained from working with the grain as contextual changes unfold that favour its goals. Conversely, though, contextual changes can consist of the state rolling back democratization and reversing participation and accountability gains.

In Nigeria, working with the grain has been a viable option. Some State governments pursue public reform in a relatively stable political environment, with civil society cooperating and participating. Here, adaptive management models like PERL’s can thrive – although, as we have seen, different aid programmes may pose conflicting incentives for the State government.

PERL has taken advantage of state capability and civil activism to support public sector reforms over years of investment by DFID/FCDO whereas SFTAS’s financial incentives induce certain behaviour changes among state officials. Civil society actors and state reformers, supported by PERL among others, seize emerging opportunities to track budgets, improve public spending coordinate strategically with another incentivizing framework, the Open Government Partnership.

But what do adaptive aid programmes do when going with the grain isn’t a viable option? In Pakistan, adaptively managed empowerment and accountability programmes such as AAWAZ and CDIP have tried to build up local community structures and promote civil-state engagement over many years. Recently, the state has closed down democratic processes, shrunk civic space and restricted rights-based advocacy focused CSOs, which in turn has reduced the room for manoeuvre of reform champions in national and local government.

FCDO’s significant investment in democracy support in Pakistan now faces an adverse context. Continuing to advance its objectives could entail working against the grain – a decision not easily taken, given the highly complex politics of Pakistan.

For adaptive managers, three takeaways from our research are:

  1. The programme’s own donor and its political economy is one set of factors to adapt around. It is critical to understand the bigger picture: who makes the decisions, the relationship between donor and national government, the impact of changes in personnel, how contracts and incentives are agreed with implementers and stakeholders, and how data and evidence is filtered and used (or not) to inform future programming.
  2. Programmes need to engage with and adapt to each other. The interplay between an adaptive programme and other aid programmes can lead to greater benefits and gains if used well. If this interplay is not noticed or used missed opportunities or even undermining effects can result.
  3. Adaptive management of governance programmes has risks and limitations. However adaptively managed, there is a limit to what an accountable governance programme can achieve in a context where civic space is closing and a reform path is lacking.



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