ADAPTing Aid: Lessons from Six Case Studies

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Download the full report ▸ ADAPTing Aid: Lessons from Six Case Studies

A growing body of evidence indicates that aid agencies are most successful when able to operate flexibly, particularly in fragile environments. Yet our systems and tools are often too rigid to effectively address complex problems, and programme incentives frequently undermine adaptation instead of supporting it. To drive improvements in impact we need to be better able to analyze the dynamics of a given situation, anticipate how these might evolve, and be sufficiently agile to adapt to changes in context and need.

In 2015 the IRC and Mercy Corps joined forces to launch ADAPT (Analysis Driven Agile Programming Techniques) to research, innovate and field test adaptive management techniques for the sector.

Three questions dominate the adaptive management discourse:

  1. What does it look like in practice?
  2. What impact can it have?
  3. And how can it best be nurtured?

ADAPT tackled these questions through case studies examining programmes in different complex contexts. The case findings were debated and built on by 50 practitioners, donors and researchers in a workshop held in London in April 2016. The ADAPT report brings our learning together, to share reflections on how adaptive management can advance the effectiveness and impact of aid.

Highlights of what we learned from each case include:

  • In Uganda’s Acholi region, an agricultural market development programme underlined the importance of leadership and organisational culture in driving teams to improve.

  • In South and Central Syria, a partner-led relief programme demonstrated how situational awareness must be built deliberately to inform strategic decisions in a crisis.

  • In Niger’s Diffa region, an emergency intervention leveraged information management to create an external enabling environment for a more effective humanitarian response.

  • In Sierra Leone, two education projects underway when Ebola hit highlighted how compliance arrangements can either amplify or stifle adaptability.

  • In Liberia, a social mobilization project, launched in response to Ebola, demonstrated that a clear external motivation and shared goal can form a powerful anchor for adaptation and learning.

  • In Myanmar’s Kayah State, a health project showed how context analysis can be used to manage partner relations and enable opportunistic programming.

Building on the learning from our teams, the ADAPT partnership will be working to pilot adaptive programming techniques with our field programmes over the next two years, institutionalize adaptive management within our agencies, and further influence the sector through the findings from our work.

Download the Uganda case study: Building an Adaptive Team for Market Systems Development in Acholi, Uganda ▸

Download the Syria case study: Ensuring Contextual Awareness and Flexible Partnership in South and Central Syria ▸

Download the Niger case study: Leveraging an Informant Network for Rapid Relief Response in Diffa, Niger ▸

Download the Sierra Leone case study: Pivoting Approaches in the Face of a Crisis in Sierra Leone: Comparative Case ▸

Download the Liberia case study: Promoting Partner Autonomy and Learning to Fight Ebola in Liberia ▸

Download the Myanmar case study: Tailoring Health Programming to Context Variations in Kayah State, Myanmar ▸


To learn more about adaptive management at Mercy Corps, please see:
Managing Complexity: Adaptive management at Mercy Corps
Navigating Complexity: A case study of adaptive management in northern Uganda

  • The IRC and Mercy Corps have formed the ADAPT (Analysis Driven Agile Programming Techniques) partnership to bring about transformative change in the way implementing and donor agencies plan, resource, and implement programmes. ADAPT is field grounded and practical – using evidence generated from the field to show how programme adaptation can be done, and how it makes a difference. Leveraging case studies, pilots and engagement with thought leaders and decision makers, ADAPT seeks to change the relationships, incentives and systems that propel our work.

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