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Learning to make a difference

Christian Aid Ireland’s adaptive programme management in governance, gender, peace building and human rights

Authors: David Booth with Karol Balfe, Róisín Gallagher, Gráinne Kilcullen, Sarah O’Boyle and Alix Tiernan

Tackling the problems of poverty, vulnerability and exclusion that persist in parts of the world that continue to be affected by violence or political insecurity is difficult for several reasons. For one, because of the complexity of the prevailing social, economic and political systems, solutions to chronic problems are far from obvious. One response to this aspect of the challenge is adaptive programme design and management.

This paper is the product of a multi-year collaboration between ODI and the core team of Christian Aid Ireland to assess the relevance of adaptive or trial-and-error approaches to the field of governance, peace building and human rights. It explains the basis on which Christian Aid Ireland’s current five-year programme funded by Irish Aid has become committed to an adaptive approach. It then describes and seeks to draw lessons from the programme’s first year of experience, considering the possible implications for implementation over the coming years.

Interest in adaptive programme management is growing fast, reflecting increasing global awareness of the limitations of ‘blueprint’ plans for addressing complex problems. However, a large literature shows that moving to a more learning-based approach is challenging. It is particularly hard for organisations that either believe they know the solutions to typical problems or are otherwise limited in their ability to recognise mistakes and change course between scheduled mid-term reviews and final evaluations. Christian Aid Ireland’s experience reviewed here is therefore of interest to a wider community of practice concerned with how to redesign a programme to make it more adaptive and what issues can arise in the process. At this stage, it is of course not possible to assess the impact of the new approach.

The programme works in seven countries affected by conflict, violence or political instability – Angola, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. It is based on partnerships with local organisations, especially non-governmental and civil society organisations working with marginalised women and men, and other gender identities. It aims to make a difference to people’s lives by helping them realise their human rights, improve their security and address gender inequalities.

Joint activities and management tools are now being used to structure the programme’s relationships with partners. These include ‘strategy testing’, explicit theories of change and ‘outcome harvesting’. Annual strategy testing events, based on a procedure developed by The Asia Foundation, are designed to stimulate regular reflection around the theories of change underpinning partner activities. Participatory outcome harvesting is used to inform the testing of strategies and to support revision of theories of change where necessary. Both the strategy testing and the outcome harvesting serve to populate the results frameworks required for reporting to Irish Aid, in which pre-set targets – a legacy of the previous approach to management for results – are still a feature.

A review of the experience so far suggests that the instruments and processes being introduced are strongly welcomed by partners and show promise as a means of increasing their effectiveness in contributing to ambitious objectives. Partners are generally embracing the changed relationship with Christian Aid Ireland with enthusiasm, although the required self-awareness, analytical capacity and willingness to adapt come more easily to some than to others. Flexible adjustments to changed circumstances are currently more common than genuine adaptation. To get full benefits from the move to adaptive management, the new ways of working and their underlying principles will need to become more embedded in the organisations’ practices and cultures.

Based on their review, the authors believe Christian Aid Ireland will need to be proactive in supporting this change, between as well as during the formally scheduled strategy testing cycles. It should lay increasing emphasis on the difference between desirable flexibility and adaptive working in the full sense. And it should report to Irish Aid in a way that gives maximum prominence to the expected benefits of ‘learning to make a difference’. Irish Aid, for its part, should consider the potential benefits of the new approach for achieving results over traditional reporting against pre-set targets. Other international development organisations might take inspiration from what this programme is doing, especially if they are working on similar issues with a comparable partnership approach.