3 August, 2016

USAID: To Increase and Sustain Development Gains, We Must Learn to Adapt

By Barbara Smith
Deputy Assistant to the Administrator in the U.S. Agency for International Development's Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning, and member of the GPEDC Steering Committee

Fragility and conflict, arguably, are two of the biggest obstacles to development progress and sustainability. Humanitarian crises that so often follow conflict impede development and further divert available resources.

With the amount of new and protracted crises escalating around the world, we need to do a better job of adapting our development practices. Our programming needs to be more flexible and capable of adapting to changing circumstances, as well as be better able to mitigate potential and emerging crises.

However, it is important to recognize that the ability of development programs to adapt is not only important in crisis contexts. Even in stable environments, we cannot reliably predict how events or circumstances will evolve and impact our programs. Few, if any, development interventions are perfectly designed from the beginning. All development programming benefits from rigorous monitoring and evaluation, from collecting data and building the evidence base, and from making adjustments when needed.

Development is a complex, adaptive process. At USAID we are introducing policy changes to encourage more agile programming to provide staff members and partners with the flexibility to manage adaptively. We recognize that we do not have all the answers and that we need to continue to build a culture at USAID that welcomes collaboration, learning and adapting.

We are currently working to create an enabling environment for adaptive management within USAID and to support that environment with tools that will build the capacity of our team, both at headquarters and in the field, to use adaptive management approaches for improved program performance.

USAID has begun experimenting with adaptively managed programs, and some are already showing results. In Uganda, USAID’s Community Connector Project relies on a modular approach that emphasizes collaborating with local partners and actively seeking new information from a variety of sources on an on-going basis to catalyze the discovery and application of new ideas.

Following the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, where the international community came together to address ways to modernize responses to humanitarian crises, many countries suggested approaches to improve adaptability through a focus on outcomes and the needs of people in crisis.

The United States is exploring innovative approaches to respond to protracted crises. At USAID, we are developing plans for a new internal U.S. Government process, the Crisis Review Mechanism, to ensure that we respond flexibly and coherently. Through this mechanism, we will assess the trajectory of a crisis and determine how we can adapt our assistance to make our humanitarian and development efforts more complementary.

In addition, we are continuing to create better ways to strengthen resilience in countries and communities that are vulnerable to recurrent shocks. We are building new partnerships and strengthening existing ones with local responders, civil society and governments to improve the capacity of local actors to lead their own crisis response.

These efforts to improve flexibility in our programming and work with local actors to boost sustainability have benefitted from the growing interest within the development community around related efforts, such as Doing Development Differently, Thinking and Working Politically, and the Global Delivery Initiative, which are led by a variety of different stakeholders including civil society, academic institutions, think tanks, multilateral institutions and development agencies. By working together and sharing best practices, we’ll be better able to adapt and modernize our development assistance.

As we move towards the Second High Level Meeting of the Global Partnership in Nairobi at the end of this year, we, the entire international development community, should consider what lessons we can draw from this body of work. We should also reflect on how such lessons can be applied to make development cooperation more effective, and how efforts to manage adaptively can be monitored to determine whether or not they are actually delivering better outcomes. Finally, we also need to consider what processes we will adopt to ensure that we are not only continuously gathering new information and learning, but that we are also making decisions and modifying programs based on that information in order to improve our effectiveness so that, together, we can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.