How adaptive management is changing international development

Shaheen Saib
3 min readApr 15, 2021

At CPI, we have been exploring Human Learning Systems (HLS) as an emerging approach to public sector management, analysing many examples from the UK and elsewhere. We have recently taken a close interest in the way the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) has introduced adaptive management into its operations, and we wanted to examine this practice through the lens of HLS.

We partnered with LearnAdapt and the FCDO to research two of FCDO’s adaptive management programmes — Government Partnerships International (GPI) and . The GPI programme seeks to develop government capacity in countries such as Ghana, Kyrgyzstan and Nepal, taking a prominent role in projects ranging from education policy reform to frontier technology. MUVA, meanwhile, has developed 17 projects focused on female economic empowerment in Mozambique.

We conducted interviews with programme delivery staff, managers, and Senior Responsible Officers (SROs) from GPI and MUVA, and we wrote them up in a case study, Adaptive Management Practice in the UK Government. We’ve found that their approach has some fascinating implications for how shared learning can foster trust at the national government level.

Exploring the GPI and MUVA programmes

As GPI’s Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) team explained to us: “There’s no one tool or method that makes adaptive management work. It’s all about the ways of working. So much is about the team composition, soft skills, how you coordinate and collaborate.” They have backed this up by being very “participatory in the way that we do things.”

They have sought to understand — and adapt to — the unique contexts of the programme participants, delivering impact through understanding the complex needs of individuals, environment and systems. This was evident from their definition of successful outcomes, which adopt the participants’ perspectives rather than impose standardised metrics, such as KPIs, from the outside.

The MUVA team have also used participatory learning strategies, which help to build empathy. Each achievement is celebrated, the celebration often led by the participants themselves. For example, they designed their own graduation and leaving ceremonies, telling the stories of how they experienced the MUVA programme and how it had impacted their lives as young Mozambican women.

There’s no one tool or method that makes adaptive management work. It’s all about the ways of working. So much is about the team composition, soft skills, how you coordinate and collaborate.

The virtuous cycle of adaptive management programmes

The GPI and MUVA programmes use learning as their overall meta-strategy, so the primary job of those leading them is to create and sustain learning environments. The process of learning together, with tools and processes that encourage and enable empathy to be built between all the actors involved, creates trust to work towards the achievement of a shared purpose.

A key purpose of the learning and reflection spaces that programme managers and MEL teams have created is to build effective human relationships, cementing trust between the different actors involved in a programme. They enable these system actors to collect relevant data, share experiences, and collectively make sense of what has been happening.

How can these tools be stepping stones towards the evolution of more complexity-friendly tools in the future?

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