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Adapting design, adapting programming

Time (GMT +00) 14:00 16:00
Hero image description: Urban landscape - Dhaka city port, Bangladesh Image credit:Manoocher Deghati/IRIN Image license:ODI given rights

Stephen Commins, Lecturer in Urban Planning, UCLA

Leni Wild, Team Leader, Public Goods and Services, ODI

Ben Ramalingham, ODI Research Associate


Stefan Kossoff, Head of Profession – Governance, DFID 

​This roundtable provided an opportunity for development practitioners and researchers from a range of organisations to come together to discuss how development programmes can be more adaptive in their design and implementation. The event began with a discussion of why we need more adaptive programming, some of the obstacles to taking such an approach, and how donors and implementing organisations are attempting to overcome these challenges.

Why attempt ‘adaptive development’?

The case for more adaptive programming can be made on a number of grounds. Firstly, it was argued that the focus of the MDGs on closing the funding gap has achieved some progress in development indicators but that this progress has been far from even and many of the most marginalised groups have not been reached through increased state spending or aid. Instead, a detailed understanding of the issues preventing more equitable progress is necessary and this cannot be achieved through funding alone. Furthermore, the focus on promoting ‘good governance’ has also largely failed to result in better services for the poor. While some countries exhibit improvements according to good governance indicators, this has not always translated into development outcomes, as states adopt forms but not the function of ‘ideal’ institutions. This finding underlines the need for development interventions to be adapted to the local context, solving specific problems rather than importing pre-designed external systems and tools.

A further reason for more adaptive programming is based on the recognition that change is complex and unpredictable. The difficulty of being able to understand, predict and shape change calls for an experimental approach to development interventions; making a series of small steps, reviewing what their impact is, and developing the next steps according to on-going results and learning. However, being experimental is generally felt to be risky for both individuals and organisations, whose culture tends to be accepting of conventional failure but not of alternative approaches. The additional constraint of spending large budgets according to a pre-designed programme, rather than allowing funding to be increased as an intervention develops is also a barrier to adaptive programming.

Thirdly, drawing on the World Development Report 2015, it was argued that adaptive programming is important because humans’ decision-making is 'differently' rational, meaning that our mental processes for decision-making are different to ‘traditional’ economic assumptions about rational behaviour. Decisions are often automatic, following behavioural patterns and responding to social norms in the societies in which we live. This can mean that particular ‘mental models’ are very strong and that development professionals can have biases which shape how they make decisions about their work. This has implications for how, and by whom, development programmes and support are designed and implemented.

The challenge of taking adaptive programming to scale

The recognition of the need for changed approaches seems to be gaining currency. As a result, there are a growing number of ways in which donors and other development organisations are attempting to do more adaptive programming. This ranges from participatory approaches to design and implementation, using political-economy analysis to understand institutional constraints to change, drawing on behavioural rather than neo-classical economics, and promoting entrepreneurial logic to foster innovation. Examples of donor-funded programmes in the Philippines, Burma, and elsewhere have demonstrated how a more adaptive approach can be achieved but the question remains of how to widen space for such approaches within donors and other development organisations.  The discussion highlighted a number of key issues surrounding efforts to make adaptive programming more of the norm in development. These included:

1)      Space for honesty

Participants discussed whether there is a need for a new ‘narrative, based on a more open and honest dialogue about how change really happens in different countries, including the trade-offs in working in politically challenging environments. Development practitioners discussed concerns that ‘local partners’ may themselves have ulterior motives and a range of interests, which can make genuinely locally led efforts less palatable.  Yet, there was also broad recognition that external support can only ever nudge or facilitate change, with local reformers as those who really drive the process.

2)      Allowing time for risk-taking

Challenges were raised in terms of donors’ own electoral cycles, and the need for politicians to see results from development investments in a relatively short period. This can make supporting an adaptive approach to development seem too risky, especially where it doesn’t produce short-term results. Efforts are underway within agencies to create more space for working in this way – as seen with DFID’s Better Delivery agenda, for example – and the need to reflect on whether this is leading to real change in behaviour was raised.

3)      How to achieve organisational change?

The need for behavioural change within development organisations therefore emerged as a key issue. While development programmes tend to assume that it will happen naturally, change management literature talks about changing behaviour specifically. It was proposed that more could be learned from existing literature on change management outside of development and that learning from the difficulties other sectors and policy areas have faced in trying to put this theory into practice may be of benefit.

A couple of examples were given of how organisations are attempting to promote organisational change by facilitating development, not directing it. These described using peer review to allow ideas to emerge, and identifying individuals who are motivated to pursue a particular change and then supporting them to do so.

Other issues raised included understanding that people are often risk averse because they are afraid that trying a new approach may risk ‘losing’ what they know already, and so taking on board these ‘mindsets’ is important. Another challenge which was highlighted was ineffective information sharing between funding and implementing organisations on how they work, which can undermine attempts for lesson learning across organisations. 

4)      Adaptive development in the current political context

Finally, questions reflected on public perceptions of aid, the challenge of making a convincing case for aid with electorates in different countries, and what this implies for the capacity of public facing development organisations and government donors to implement a change agenda.  While some argued that there are signs that populations in donor countries are open to more honest public debate on these issues, others argued that the development sector needs to be modest about the bigger political picture and the limited space for changing the ‘aid industry’ in the current climate. There was a call for realism about the difficult wider political environment in which aid functions and that to push this work forward the sector must keep talking, keep experimenting, and keep documenting its work on taking an adaptive approach to development, as well as looking to build alliances outside of development too.


This roundtable will explore the findings of the recent World Bank World Development Report, ‘Mind, Society, Behavior’ as well as recent research into Adapting Development. It will set out some common calls for changing how development support is provided, to supporter greater problem-solving, adaptive design and implementation. It will focus on how to operationalise these calls, in terms of practical recommendations and changing mindsets and working cultures within development organisations.
Stephen Commins, one of the conveners of the WDR 2015, will reflect on World Bank experience on these themes, while Leni Wild, ODI, and Ben Ramalingham, ODI Research Associate will discuss broader shifts underway in other development organisations too. Stefan Kossoff, Head of Profession – Governance, at DFID will chair.

To attend, please contact Claire ([email protected])