The role of research and learning in adaptive programming

Credit: International Fund for Agricultural Development
Credit: International Fund for Agricultural Development

This final blog in the three-part series on adaptive programming focuses on research and learning (see our earlier instalments on what it takes to work adaptively in implementation and how to monitor and evaluate adaptive programs).

The increased emphasis on adaptive programming approaches has seen learning or knowledge partners become an increasingly common feature of aid programs. These partners are intended to promote learning and facilitate the integration of knowledge and ‘evidence’ into program implementation. But how these learning partners operate and feed into programs is not straightforward and often not agreed for all involved. It is not always clear who is learning, about what, or for what purpose.

The Institute for Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University has acted as a learning partner and conducted action research alongside a range of DFAT-funded development programs in the Pacific, most recently the PNG-Australia Governance Partnership. This means we spend a lot of our time thinking about the role of research, knowledge and learning in development (indeed – we will be hosting the Research for Development Impact conference at our Melbourne campus next year – stay tuned!). Here, we set out some initial ideas for how learning partnerships can deliver real impact.

Development practitioners or front-line staff are often operating in information-poor spaces and want their practice to be informed by knowledge and evidence. But knowing clearly what information might be relevant and useful, and how to acquire it, is less clear, particularly in adaptive programs where information needs are likely to change.

At the same time, practitioners are working to time-bound deadlines and often specific deliverables that they would like research to inform. This makes quick and concise research appealing, and a range of helpdesks and knowledge banks have been set up to respond to such research requests. This type of ‘rapid research’ can deliver quick summaries of existing international evidence, experience or information and provide useful inputs in a timely manner. They can be a great jumping off point for deeper inquiry. But they should not be seen as the only or default way to do research or access knowledge. This type of research tends to favour generalist expertise operating at a high level of abstraction. Moreover, the increasingly-used language of ‘knowledge products’ can imply that knowledge is a product or commodity that exists ‘out there’, to be plucked and delivered to and consumed by programs.

The Institute sees learning partnerships as able to offer a brokering role – mediating between researchers, academics, aid practitioners and policy makers. There are at least four aspects to this. First, learning partners can play a role in accessing and filtering international evidence, as per the helpdesk model above. This can ensure that each new aid program does not reinvent the wheel and builds on learning from elsewhere that is contextually relevant.

Second, learning partners can bring in local voices and perspectives. Any learning from international experience must be contextualised and refracted through a local lens for it to be relevant to a given context. This can best be done by local researchers, program staff or citizens who have knowledge about existing or past practices or policies that have worked (or not). This can throw up novel solutions that are likely to be socially, culturally and politically appropriate, and hence more likely to succeed.

Third, learning partners can play a convening role, creating ‘safe’ spaces for different voices and knowledge to be brought to the fore. This can extend to marginalised groups within a community (such as young people or women), or the ‘quiet achievers’ within programs, who may hold considerable knowledge but may not feel comfortable challenging dominant narratives or people. As Einstein said, we cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. Bringing in voices and perspectives from often overlooked groups holds enormous potential for solving the intractable or ‘wicked’ problems with which many aid programs are grappling. Indeed, often there are useful existing practices already happening in a given context that international actors could learn from – what are sometimes known as examples of positive deviance.

Fourth, learning partners play an important role in connecting the research and learning from an aid program to wider debates in the aid industry. This is crucial to ensuring that, as a community of practice, the aid industry is continually learning from each program.

One helpful way to think about these roles is as a ‘learning journey.’ This is the way the Institute for Development Studies refers to one aspect of the knowledge and research services provided to DFID. These are a cluster of related activities and outputs designed to support learning and dialogue and share the latest thinking and research. Importantly, they are journeys that may include short research summaries, learning events, deeper research pieces, and so on. The journey approach recognises that learning happens through interactions, thinking and sharing diverse ideas in different formats, not by consuming ‘knowledge products.’

Research and learning partners have the potential to support development programming and policy to be more effective, adaptive and informed by the best possible knowledge and evidence. But having a narrow focus on knowledge ‘products’ or ‘quick and dirty’ summaries of international literature overlooks the more central and strategic role that learning and knowledge plays in adaptive programming. Balancing immediate program needs for information with longer-term research activities to develop new knowledge offers the best potential for development programs, and the sector, to get the most out of learning partners.

This is the third in a three-part series on adaptive aid programming. Part one looked at adaptive implementation, and part two at adaptive monitoring and evaluation. A pdf of all three posts can be found here.

Andrea Babon

Andrea Babon has a PhD in international environmental governance from Charles Darwin University and is an independent researcher and consultant.

Lisa Denney

Lisa Denney is a senior research fellow and Deputy Director of the Institute for Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University and a research associate with ODI.


  • Have been following adaptive programming with interest, and this is another great article from the 3. I work in the front line of implementation in aid program in PNG for many years now, and can attest that programming which is informed by proper research and learning always has a place, but unfortunately never given the proper place and space to grow. The diversity of PNG provides a challenge in aid programing, but it also provides a great research and learning environment, so as other diverse contexts in other countries I would think . Positive deviants from aid programs are also many, as well general learnings from implementations, something that can be nurtured, promoted, and importantly inform policies and aid thinking and approaches. This can be done through a solid research and learning strategy that forms an integral part of a given aid program. Adaptive programming approach provides a conducive research and learning environment, and also provides the opportunity to do ‘development differently’, and is promising.

    • Hi John! I’m really pleased that you’re engaging with the blogs. You are one of the people we are learning from about the value of adaptive programming in PNG. The way you work and the results you get when you are able to be flexible and respond to changes in context on the ground is really impressive. I hope we can engage with you more to learn from your approach (including the challenges you face in working adaptively and how others can support these ways of working).

      • Thankyou Andrea. Happy to engage with the blogs and share some of our learnings about adaptive programming. Looking forward to more discussions.

  • Thanks Steve and Lavinia,
    I think your comments point to a similar issue: the political environment to enable these ways of working is often not present and, I think in DFAT’s case, is often closing. As aid budgets shrink and political concerns about demonstrating easily understood, tangible ‘results’ take hold, the space for taking risks on new ways of working closes. This is despite a commitment to ‘innovation’ – and despite some in DFAT demonstrating genuine commitment to these ways of working (including in the Effective Governance strategy).

    Perhaps the adaptive programming approach should explicitly brand itself as ‘innovative’ to tag onto government commitment to this? That could give adaptive programming some political cover. But taking such an instrumental approach does worry me as trends like ‘innovation’ invariably wax and wane.

    So that aside, I think it’s about finding spaces to work differently. This may be at Posts where there is leadership committed to working these ways. It may be in small programs where there is less concern about ‘failure’ and concerns about the bilateral relationship do not crowd out efforts to do aid well. Or it may be under the radar working with people interested in working adaptively and making their own institutional structures accommodate this. I realise that’s not an ideal answer! If we are to change the wider political environment longer term it has to be about making the case for why adaptive ways of working can deliver better results; as well as recalibrating the domestic discussions about how aid works to get away from the unhelpful simplistic results agenda. But that’s all hard, long term stuff and so I suspect we’re going to be focused on finding the spaces for now. Andrea might have other thoughts…

    • Thanks Andrea and Lisa for this piece and we have likewise greatly appreciated the three blogs and their contribution to the adaptive programming discourse.

      Steve’s comment and your earlier (first blog) recognition of the political economy amongst donor agencies and implementing partners highlights the complexity and challenge of practicing adaptive programming. Indeed, authority relationships and expectations between donors and implementing agencies frequently present barriers to adaptive management. Donors may be committed to working adaptively with partners but in practice, tolerance for program flexibility within donor agencies can be highly varied and dynamic. Furthermore, donor agencies that provide consistent trust and flexibility to partners may not resolve the tendency of partner agencies to avoid risk taking and tell donors what they want to hear. In other words, navigating the political economy between donors and partners requires redefining trust relationships within and between stakeholders and explicitly re-negotiating partnerships.

      Adaptive management and learning are iterative processes that requires flexibility and risk taking from both donors and implementing partners. To this end Lisa, your ‘finding spaces to work differently” point is likely a practical solution albeit requiring a confluence of the right moment and people. Thanks again.

  • I have greatly appreciated the 3 blogs on adaptive aid programming. As expressed in my earlier comment on Richard Curtain’s blog (A new perspective on aid delivery, August 21, 2018) and based on over 4 decades as a development practitioner, I am a convert to the cause.

    So much for what I might agree with, it is the practical implementation of such a programming of aid that I see as the real cause for concern. You reference a number of helpful examples. However, in my experience, adaptive approaches are vastly overwhelmed by the prior donor focus on short-term financial and technical fixes and the somewhat arrogant, heavily predetermined direction of assistance in the case of the majority of aid programs. Such repeatedly wasteful and failed approaches to aid are compounded by the consistent turnover of both donor and recipient staff and leadership and the prior focus on annual budgets. Unfortunately, the overall environment is not conducive to adaptive aid programming. Can adaptive aid programming expand beyond the realms of academia and the occasional donor commitment?

    • Hi Steve, I hope we didn’t give the impression that this is easy! I think implementation is really testing adaptive approaches and theories. But we are seeing some genuine interest in adaptive programming . Whether or not it can gain traction within the existing political economy of aid programs is still to be seen. But I am heartened by interactions I have with frontline program staff who intuitively want to adapt and that some of the theory behind this approach holds true for them. The challenge is helping them work this way within the current constraints (and not lose their sanity!) and convincing those further away from the front line of delivery of its value.

  • Thanks Andrea and Lisa for a great article. You make an excellent case that learning partnerships can (and should) play a critical and varied role in programming – in particular to keep focus on the ‘wicked’ development problems and long-term change. In your opinion/s, how can we best incentivise this sort of change in an industry where donors may focus on (and reward) short-term, output level results that are easier to track and communicate to domestic constituencies?

    • Thanks for your comment Lavinia! I am just finishing Jack Corbett’s excellent book on ‘Australia’s foreign aid dilemma’ which is helping me to understand the pressure on donors from domestic constituencies. I know foreign aid doesn’t enjoy broad support from the public and hence there is pressure for ‘value for money’ and efficiency from donors, but that doesn’t seem to translate to supporting learning about what works and what doesn’t and why and not repeating past mistakes. I certainly understand the challenges faced by those trying to communicate and justify aid spending to a domestic audience, and am not fooled by simplistic calls for evidence based policy, but I do think that reasearch and learning can help VFM and other donor objectives in both the short and long term.

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