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Adaptive programming has been a hot topic in the development sector recently, but what exactly is it and what is new? To find out more I organised a dedicated monitoring, evaluation and learning event on 1st November 2016 – hosted at Triple Line offices in London – with Richard Butterworth, Head of Senior Responsible Owner Development in the Better Delivery Department, as guest speaker. Key insights are discussed in this blog.

Adaptive programming is a new funding modality that DFID is pursuing, targeted at projects working with clear goals but working in complex, uncertain contexts where evidence of what works does not exist. It builds on agile and adaptive approaches on the ground, hoping to mainstream this practice as a result.

Adaptive management for DFID hinders on supportive monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems: the type that generate and support use of real-time data about what is working but also facilitating ongoing political economy and context analysis as well as triangulation of data for rational and intentional adaptation. This invariable needs higher resource investment, particularly during set up phases, not to mention the obvious logistical challenges in answering key questions – generally related to outcome and impact levels – which typically tend to require long periods of time in order to yield otherwise rigorous and reliable data. However the new emphasis seems to be on how to strike middle ground, finding the minimum but necessary types of information that could be used for decision-making – signifying perhaps room for less than golden standard approaches as a compromise towards real-time data. However what exactly that means is yet to be thoroughly tested when working with DFID.

Another key element of M&E systems under adaptive management for DFID is the change in focus: from full plans of action and single outcome statements with attribution claims to multiple, emergent outcomes and a focus on contribution to impact. But it is also a change from serving primarily for accountability purposes to facilitating programme learning and reflection too. This represents an important shift in M&E practice, more in line with the trends seen in the sector, best reflected in the rising popularity of development evaluation and outcomes harvesting for example.

As a funding mechanism adaptive programming for DFID is focused on flexibility: flexible funding, one that understands the need to quickly adjust and change direction based on the context, retaining however the emphasis on cost-effectiveness comparisons and/or complementarity with other projects and programmes.

Now this is interesting and a practical challenge for DFID, whom needs changing the way payment for results, business cases for ministerial approval, logframes and annual review templates are used. The supportive programme management environment at DFID will also have to change, particularly procurement and financial management. All this needs buy in, perhaps through capacity building efforts and policy development, so it might be a while yet until DFID’s practice reflects this new vision consistently across its portfolio.

What is clear is that adaptive programming is here to stay, demonstrated by an increased donor-emphasis on this practice – take for example the Global Learning for Adaptive Management initiative (GLAM), a partnership between DFID and USAID, to jointly provide thought leadership on the subject – and research and M&E practice will have to find ways to support this effort.

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