Insights and Analysis

How Do You Make Aid Programs Truly Adaptive?

August 10, 2016

By Lisa Denney, Daniel Harris, and Leni Wild

A swelling chorus of the development community has been advocating for more flexible and adaptive programming that can respond to the twists and turns of political reform processes. They argue that in order to achieve better aid outcomes, we need to do development differently.

As part of this agenda, ODI and The Asia Foundation, with the assistance of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, tracked and analyzed three programs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Mongolia. These programs explicitly sought to work politically in practice, using a relatively small amount of money, a relatively short timeframe, and a focus on tangible changes. We followed attempts to achieve environmental compliance and increase exports in the leather sector in Bangladesh, and to improve solid waste management in Cambodia and Mongolia; issues identified for their potential to make important contributions (economic, health, environmental, etc.) to the wellbeing of citizens.

Community residents participated in garbage collection in their neighborhoods as part of a campaign to improve waste management in Phnom Penh.

Community residents participated in garbage collection in their neighborhoods as part of a campaign to improve waste management in Phnom Penh.

Two of our case studies were released this month, telling the story of how the reforms unfolded and shifted strategy to better leverage the incentives of influential stakeholders, as well as the mechanics of how the Foundation supported adaptive ways of working.

How adaptation worked in practice

In each case, the program teams (led by staff in the Foundation’s local office, and supported by a variety of contracted partners and a wider uncontracted reform network reaching both inside and outside of government) made significant changes to strategy during the implementation phase that helped to address difficult, multidimensional problems. In Cambodia, the team faced a complex and often opaque challenge in which waste collection is characterized by a single company with a long-term confidential contract that is difficult to monitor, a fee structure that does not encourage improved household waste collection, garbage collectors whose conditions do not incentivize performance, and communities that are difficult to access and do not always understand the importance of sanitary waste disposal. With a small Foundation team and limited funding, the approach relied on working with individuals selected as much for personal connections, disposition, and political know-how in working politically and flexibly, as for technical knowledge. The team began by cultivating relations between City Hall and the single contractor providing solid waste management services, then moved to work with the sole provider to improve their delivery, and finally, resolved to end the single contractor model in favor of competition.

In Bangladesh, the team knew from the outset that the absence of space and other features of the current site of Dhaka’s leather tanneries limit growth of the industry as a whole, and the feasibility of establishing treatment facilities for the significant quantities of industrial effluent produced as a part of the tanning process. That effluent is dumped, generally untreated, into the river, generating significant and well-documented social, environmental, and economic costs. The strategy for achieving relocation, however, shifted from developing broad-based consensus from all parties on the need to relocate, to identifying and cultivating relationships among a subset of key entrepreneurs with sufficient market share and influence to lead the charge. This more selective approach allowed the team to focus negotiations on substantive issues that would affect large firm behavior (e.g., land rights and financing terms), thereby neutralizing the tactics of those smaller tanneries that were simply interested in extracting the maximum value of concessions as a part of the relocation process (e.g. distribution of the government compensation package), without any intention to move and operate tannery facilities at the new industrial estate.

Changes in program strategy were at times prompted by new information or knowledge. For instance, as the Bangladesh team developed relationships with firms, they learnt more about how incentives to relocate were affected by business interests, allowing them to reframe the relocation issue as one of economic potential rather than environmental compliance. Change was also triggered by new relationships, such as the strong links developed by the Cambodia team with a Phnom Penh Deputy Governor, affording new information and opportunities.

External events played a role. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factories in Bangladesh highlighted the dangers of economic reliance on a single industry, allowing the team to draw attention to potential export earnings in the leather sector as a way to attract the interest of influential members of government. In Cambodia, the outcome of the 2013 election, in which the incumbent party lost a remarkable number of seats, pushed the government to be more responsive to citizen interests in areas that provided a visible dividend – like solid waste management. In both cases, the explicitly flexible approach adopted provided the space to adjust program strategy and activities to respond to such events.

What was less clear was how to judge when to stay on course and when to change tack. There is a risk that adaptive programming responds reactively, without sufficient thought and purpose. This is exacerbated when programs do not have metrics by which to judge whether the current course of action is having the intended impact (also called “actionable metrics“). In the Foundation reforms, teams engaged in “strategy testing” – critically reflecting on their existing theories of change and assumptions every quarter, and testing whether these needed to adapt based on learning and changes in the environment. These methods helped structure and inform such decisions, but available metrics did not always yield clear and decisive guidance. Decisions as to when change was needed often relied on the judgement of good program managers. While it seems unlikely most programs will ever be able to rely exclusively on metrics that straightforwardly instruct program staff how and when to adjust their tactics, as more organizations claim to work adaptively, there is a need to ensure that adaptation is strategic and purposive – rather than a simple “finger in the wind” exercise.


Reform processes are long-term endeavors, but in both cases, progress has been made and the achievements provide cause for optimism; however, in neither is progress a done deal. In Bangladesh, following decades of inaction despite numerous legal and programmatic efforts, the tanneries and government have now made significant investments in infrastructure at the new industrial estate. Yet construction is incomplete and the team has concerns regarding operation and maintenance of the new facilities.

In Cambodia, the government has announced a review of the single-provider contract for waste collection and planning is under way for a new collection system with different providers responsible for different city zones. However, the existing single-provider contract remains in place and the links between contract reform and improved service delivery remain unproven. The extent of truly transformational change will need to be reassessed as events unfold, yet in both cases we see the potential for change not just at the margin, but in the institutions and incentives that will shape behavior for years to come. In contrast to the persistence of these development challenges in the face of more traditional program approaches in the past, these results deserve our attention.

More detail on the story of each reform, including the composition of the teams, the specific constraints they faced and the tactics they deployed in response is, of course, available in the full case studies for Bangladesh and Cambodia.

This post was originally published on August 5 by From Poverty to Power. This version has been edited slightly.

Authors Lisa Denney, Daniel Harris, and Leni Wild are researchers with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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