David Jackson — Senior Adviser, and Maria Helena Meyer Dolve (former) Research Assistant at at U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre.

This is the second installment in a two-part blog. Part 1 can be read here: Adaptive approaches as a ‘helping hand’ for anti-corruption.

Adaptive approaches (AAs) involve new ways of planning, designing, learning, and acting. These changes are not a leap into the unknown: clear and elaborate guidelines around them exist. Yet few bilateral agencies have used adaptive approaches for anti-corruption initiatives, despite their potential and affordability.

Adaptive approaches (AA) are models that go beyond linear implementation by including greater flexibility and an emphasis on ongoing learning

So why are AAs rarely used in anti-corruption interventions? To find out, we asked some anti-corruption practitioners from DFID and Norad. We found that AAs create a set of problems for institutions. These in turn require a parallel set of deeper shifts to leadership and incentives, and to support mechanisms for staff.

Take me to your leader…

Adaptive approaches create dilemmas for political leadership and senior staff. They may be concerned that such approaches go against public expectations of efficient and accountable government. Media scrutiny was unsurprisingly also cited as a constraint on experimentation. The domestic environment may be one in which certain newspapers seize on any uncertainties around impact to fuel criticism of development aid. Such an environment discourages the experimentation required for AAs. As a result of this, practitioners said they were reluctant to report on what did not work and failed experiments. This was despite the obvious learning benefits.

Public expectations and media scrutiny … may discourage the experimentation required for adaptive approaches

While the domestic political environment can create reluctance to pursue AAs, interviewees also suggested that the politics in the recipient country could do the same. This may be especially relevant for anti-corruption programming, as this is an area where recipient governments could be reluctant to back interventions. Recipient countries may see flexibility as creating ambiguity, and so only approve anti-corruption programmes under conditions of certainty. It was also suggested in the interviews that some recipient governments were accustomed to the predictability of traditional approaches and would therefore be suspicious of AAs.

The scope for pushing back against these constraints is there. Indeed, some respondents suggested that domestic political concerns were somewhat misguided. Those experienced with AAs stressed that they could have very strong forms of accountability. Politics sets limits, but not iron constraints. Even so, interviewees suggested leaders needed to make a stronger case for pursuing AAs. This was especially true for anti-corruption programming in unstable environments, as respondents suggested that it was easier to gain support for AAs at the political level in settings which were not deemed to be fragile or post-conflict.

Culture shift

Respondents suggested that ‘a culture shift’ had to happen in their organisation and that clear direction was required to coalesce employees around a certain point of view. AAs required some unlearning and systematic changes in perspective: ‘We need to accept that we are going to be experimenting in the programme. That we don’t necessarily know what is going to happen in the work as a donor.’

The answer does not lie with formal changes to the rules. In both agencies surveyed, there had already been, to varying extents, formal encouragement of the use of AAs by senior management. However, crucially, there had been no corresponding deconstruction of the norms, incentives, and practices that favour more linear-style programming. Practitioners lamented that they often felt caught in a ‘twilight zone’ between conventional and experimental programming.

Incentives should ensure that adaptive approaches are rewarded in training, recruitment, and promotion systems

Adjusting to AAs should be nurtured in an incremental but deliberate way. Anti-corruption practitioners called on senior management to work on building in incentives to persuade people to move beyond conventional programming to use AAs. Such incentives could be about ensuring that AAs are rewarded in training, recruitment, and promotion systems. One respondent phrased this very well, ‘it is not a problem to be adaptive and flexible, as long as it coincides with the annual review.’

Give me support….

Yet, hard incentives are not enough. Interviewees suggested that senior management may have a more important nurturing role to play by building up the confidence of staff. Reviewing success stories, researchers emphasise that the ‘human element’ is critical to the effectiveness of AAs.

Respondents pointed to the day-to-day dilemmas posed by AAs, which required support mechanisms if they were to be overcome. One practitioner suggested that the guidance and the scope to pursue adaptive approaches had been established. However, the ‘cut and thrust’ of administering projects consumed the time available to respond to events by changing logframes.

The ebb and flow of staff turnover in field postings could also disrupt the implementation of AAs. It challenged the development and usage of existing knowledge. Respondents noted that turnover could cause ‘sudden’ shifts in approaches. While this was acknowledged as a structural challenge, interviewees said it was possible to introduce mechanisms to protect AAs from disruption. They suggested that institutionalising AAs within the handover process could ensure continuity (DFID interview).

Institutionalising adaptive approaches within the handover process could ensure continuity

The field of anti-corruption brings with it its own practical problems. Respondents said that involvement in anti-corruption could pose risks for national staff, who may face a social or political backlash from involvement in the area. As a result, development agencies could favour international staff to avoid putting local staff in harm’s way. Yet using local staff is important to ensure continuity of approach, and to provide the insights and contextual knowledge that are essential for AAs. It was found to be critical for agencies to find a balance between the potential risk for national staff and using them for programme continuity.

Next steps: what should the anti-corruption community be working on

Not all anti-corruption programming should necessarily be adaptive. We are interested in the dilemmas that pursuing AAs may pose for anti-corruption and how these can be overcome. In general, it is not enough to formally introduce AAs as an alternative to standard programming. In order to encourage the use of AAs in anti-corruption, this short report indicates some possible priorities:

  • Anti-corruption practitioners should be more vocal in calling for AAs. The more analysis there is in the anti-corruption field, the more convincingly the agency leadership can push for AAs. This is an issue for the development sector as a whole, but relevant too in anti-corruption. As things stand, there is virtually no evidence base for the effectiveness of AAs in anti-corruption. Recently, researchershave bemoaned the lack of empirical focus on the results of AA programmes, as well as the scarcity of rigorous methods. There is a call to move beyond descriptive research and towards more thorough research that could help us understand why AA programming may be more effective and under what conditions.
  • The basic challenge is for senior management to develop the confidence to be able to confront and manage unpredictability. Recent thinkingsuggests senior management could develop ‘safe spaces’ within organisations, where staff feel secure to experiment. Practically, these could be spaces where staff can identify mishaps, discuss them thoroughly in a constructive manner, and ensure support is given to address these challenges.

Further reading

Dasandi, N., E. Laws, H. Marquette and M. Robinson. 2019. What Does the Evidence Tell Us about ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ in Development Assistance?

Ramalinga, B., L. Wild and A.L. Buffardi. 2019. Making adaptive rigour work.

Valters, C., C. Cummings and H. Nixon. 2016. Putting Learning at the centre: adaptive development programming in practice.


The U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre at CMI works to identify and communicate informed approaches to partners for reducing the harmful impact of corruption on sustainable and inclusive development.

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All views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U4 partner agencies, or CMI/U4.