Alice Obrecht

Humanitarian organisational systems have been shaped over the past decades by two tendencies. The first is a tendency to think of humanitarian problems as clearly defined around life-saving and protection and involving short-term solutions. The second is a tendency towards certain types of performance management, influenced by new public management thinking and upwards accountability to donors, which conceives of good performance as that which is predicted, measured and monitored, through clear plans such as a logical framework.

Both influences have led to systems and processes that are good at performing certain functions, such as immediate life-saving assistance, but that are inadequate for many situations and objectives that humanitarians increasingly face. The creeping rigidity arising from pre-defined, short-term solutions and predictable performance management prevents humanitarian agencies from adapting when contexts, crises or needs change over time.

Adaptive management and agility are concepts which have gained popularity in the development aid sector and in private sector management, as approaches which enable organisations to deal more successfully with constant change and increasing levels of complexity. This article outlines the potential relevance of these concepts for humanitarian organisations, starting with some brief background to adaptiveness and examples of where humanitarian actors struggle to adapt, leading to poorer performance. The article then draws on themes from the ALNAP workshop and Groupe URD’s Autumn School on adaptiveness and agility to outline areas of work for 2019 to put into practice the concepts of adaptive management and agility1.

What does it mean to be adaptive?

In the last five years, adaptive management and adaptive programming have been the focus of an active and growing movement for change within the international development aid community (Mercy Corps and IRC, 2016; Desai et al., 2018; Valters, Cummings and Nixon, 2016; Booth, Harris and Wild, 2016; Ramalingam, 2015; Ramalingam, 2013), born out of frustrations with failing apolitical ‘good governance’ initiatives and inflexible logical frameworks and contracts.

Adaptive management is defined differently by different authors and organisations, but all share the themes of learning and continuous improvement:

  • The individual, programmatic and organizational ability to access and use knowledge, information and data in an ongoing manner in strategic and operational decisions. (Ramalingam, 2015: 2)
  • An iterative process, calling for the integration of science and management, treating policies as experiments from which managers can learn. (Wise, 2006)
  • A structured, iterative process of robust decision making in the face of uncertainty, with an aim to reducing uncertainty over time via system monitoring … a tool which should be used not only to change a system, but also to learn about the system. (Holling, 1978; Mercy Corps, 2018)
  • Managing adaptively is about accepting, working with, and learning from change, and using this learning to be more effective. (Sugden, 2016)

ALNAP suggests a simplified definition of adaptive capacities as: the ability of an organisation to adjust and respond effectively to dynamics and uncertainty (adapted from Friedman et al., 2016; Aagaard, 2012).

Adaptive management and programming offer ways of working that enable an organisation to make appropriate and effective changes to what it does and how it works in the face of new learning or changes in the systems in which it operates.


Where are humanitarian agencies failing to adapt?

Humanitarian organisational systems were set up to respond with agility to dynamic crises. But two recent trends are straining these systems: first, the expectations for humanitarians have shifted, and the contexts in which they operate may have become more complex, meaning there are now more triggers for change, to which current humanitarian approaches are not fit to respond.  It is not change itself that is the challenge, but the nature of the change that humanitarians face in most operating environments that is becoming problematic. Second, the systems used—both externally with donors and internally—for strategy, performance monitoring, accountability and risk management have evolved in ways that restrict the range of options that humanitarians have at their disposal in a dynamic environment, and make it harder to implement changes in a timely and efficient manner.  A combination of these two factors means that humanitarians are, if anything, losing their capability for adaptiveness at a time where this capability needs to be strengthened much further.

A review of evaluation findings identified at least three areas where humanitarian agencies are struggling to be nimble and adaptive in response to change and new information.

At the beginning and end of crises

An area of change where humanitarian actors have struggled to respond proactively is in periods where humanitarian needs are drastically increasing or decreasing. Chronic vulnerability in crisis-prone areas leads to millions of people falling between the cracks of humanitarian and development assistance – particularly during periods in which crisis drivers are increasing (early warning) or where a crisis has ended (early recovery).

Funding mechanisms are often blamed for this, as they prevent a streamlined delivery of support that covers basic needs while also mitigating harm or helping institutions and individuals to continue on a path of forward-looking progress. However, this focus on funding instruments can mask the reality that there is very little knowledge of ‘what works’ in disaster prevention, early response/action, and early recovery. When asked what they would do differently if given humanitarian funding earlier in a slow-onset crisis, agencies have found it difficult to describe a new way of programming (elrha 2018). A review of programme design approaches in livelihoods early-action found that the processes for analysis and weighing of programming options against goals was often very weak (Maxwell et al., 2013)—these processes are critical for an organisation’s ability to adapt its strategy or activities to shifts in the surrounding environment.

During a response, as the situation or needs change

One of the most common types of change to which humanitarians must be responsive is change in the humanitarian situation itself. This includes what is most needed by people affected by crisis, where those people are located, and broader contextual factors that impinge on the situation, such as conflict dynamics and socio-economic and political trends. Humanitarian actors in the past have generally been able to manage these changes well, however several areas of challenge have arisen in recent evaluations and research.

The sector-based organisation of humanitarian support can inhibit timely changes to services and materials that meet new needs as they arise. For example, in an evaluation of an otherwise flexible shelter project in Ethiopia, the lead agency was unable to pivot to respond to aid recipient complaints about mosquitoes and other pests, as these were deemed ‘water, sanitation and hygiene,’ or ‘non-food-items’ concerns, and therefore outside the shelter project’s scope (Mutunga et al., 2015). While agencies can handover to others with particular sectoral expertise, these coordination processes can be slow. Humanitarian agencies tend to specialise in particular sectors, and calls for proposals and funding contracts are often aligned around sector-specific indicators or outputs. This can make it difficult for agencies to respond to affected people’s priorities when they cross multiple sectors, or when they evolve across sectors over time.

Responding flexibly to changes in location is also becoming a greater challenge, particularly in conflict-driven crises. Recent major studies (Haver and Carter, 2016; Castellarnau and Stoianova 2018) have found that humanitarian actors’ presence in active conflicts and in response to displaced people is shrinking, despite these being areas in which humanitarian needs are often most acute: ‘Only a small fraction of the total international humanitarian organisations regularly respond to the most violent, conflict-driven emergencies’ and ‘the greater the level of violence in an area, the fewer the aid projects that run there: even though the suffering may be many times greater’ (Haver and Carter, 2016).

One of the contributing factors to this trend is a loss of operational flexibility. Operational flexibility enables humanitarian agencies to deal with an increasingly complex landscape of actors that shape the access conditions for humanitarian aid. It also helps them make changes to how they engage with these actors when needed (Haver and Carter, 2016). Organisations with greater operational and programmatic flexibility have been found to be more capable of making changes to location and means of transport in order to serve people in need in the most acute settings.

Alongside operational flexibility, regular context monitoring is increasingly seen as important for designing and delivering relevant and effective humanitarian responses. Context analysis supports conflict sensitivity, helps humanitarian actors avoid duplication of services, leads to the identification of important issues that can shape a humanitarian response such as land tenure rules and power dynamics, and supports relevant and meaningful communication with affected people (Campbell 2018). Contexts are not static, but change—often unpredictably—over time, and therefore their influence on a crisis and its response can change as well. Ongoing context analysis, including market and conflict analysis, are increasingly seen as a factor in the speed and relevance of humanitarian response.

When we learn about programme performance

In many cases, the stimulus for humanitarian agencies to make a change in what they are doing comes from a new understanding of the humanitarian situation or how well their programming is working. There are two important sources of information that agencies can use to achieve this new understanding, both of which have been characterised by high degrees of challenge.

The first source of information that can shift an agency’s understanding of how well it is addressing priority needs is through programme monitoring. While monitoring plays an important role in humanitarian response, organisational approaches to monitoring are rarely systematic and tend to capture mostly output-related data (Knox-Clarke and Darcy, 2013; Warner, 2017). Recent work by ALNAP found there is a consistent pattern of weak data collection and monitoring mechanisms in humanitarian programming, which can impede the quality of evaluations and inhibit the ability to identify improvements to programmes (Warner, 2017). Monitoring data that is useful for financial accountability to donors may be less illustrative of a programme’s quality or progress, as output data is not a good proxy for tracking outcomes – for instance, distributing a certain number of water filters does not automatically translate into improved hygiene outcomes (Turnbull, 2015). Donors also find the lack of better quality monitoring to be problematic as it prevents them from ‘investing in the right projects and partners’ (Mowjee et al., 2015: 15).

A second source of information, which is sometimes included in programme monitoring but also treated as its own distinct set of data, is feedback from aid recipients. Feedback from aid recipients can lead to a change in a humanitarian agency’s understanding of the relevance and appropriateness of its programming, and hopefully motivate a change in what or how that agency delivers services. While there have been significant improvements in the sector in listening and making changes in response to feedback from affected populations—including through the implementation of the Core Humanitarian Standards–, making substantive changes to programmes based on feedback remains the exception rather than the rule. Despite an overall rise in the use of feedback and complaints mechanisms in humanitarian response, agencies tend to fail to use this information consistently to change programming (IRC, 2017; Jean, 2014; ICRC, 2018). The lack of responsiveness to affected people’s feedback may be but one instance of a much broader problem: a general inability to routinely collect information on programme performance, interpret this information for decision-making and execute decisions in a timely manner.


Using adaptive approaches to improve humanitarian action in 2019 and beyond

In autumn 2018, ALNAP and Groupe URD separately convened two events to discuss the above challenges and identify better ways of working that would enable more agile and adaptive responses to crisis. Each event focused on different issues: the ALNAP workshop looked at six themes based on the organisational and inter-organisational functions relevant to adaptiveness: Funding, Human Resource management, Logistics and supply chain management, Monitoring, Programming and working in networks/collaborative approaches. From these discussions, three key themes emerged that are relevant for utilising adaptive practices for humanitarian organisations in the future.

Find practical ways to improve the ‘soft’ skills for adaptiveness

Adaptive programming tends to rely more on ‘soft’ aspects of performance such as trust, relationships and critical thinking skills. It can be difficult to find concrete and practical ways to support these within large organisations, but important to do so in order to strengthen adaptive capabilities. Examples discussed at the ALNAP workshop highlighted the importance of incentives and decentralised decision-making structures in supporting these soft attributes to take root. Hiring staff who are skilled in relationship building and creative problem solving needs to be paired with decentralised decision-making. Also, incentives need to be in place to reward adaptation and counterbalance the tendency to avoid necessary adaptations due to concerns with cost or risk.

Trial and scale systems innovations

Many agencies fail to adapt due to funding restrictions, or to confusion over what level of change donors are willing to tolerate in a programme that is underway. In some cases, such as the new country-based programme approach to financing being piloted by SIDA, new donor arrangements or pooled funding mechanisms are providing opportunities to change systemic behaviours in the agency-donor relationship that impede agility. These innovative approaches, which re-think what a humanitarian funding and response system looks like, should be shared more widely and, if effective, scaled to other countries and agencies.

Focus on outcomes for crisis affected people over outputs

If humanitarian agencies were given funding based on how crisis-affected people rated them on outcomes, there would likely be a much more adaptive and responsive humanitarian system. A greater emphasis on outcomes—both by agencies and by donors—shifts the focus to achieving results through the best outputs rather than fulfilling pre-established plans when these are no longer relevant or useful. While agencies have made improvements on collecting and using feedback from aid recipients, these practices do not inform changes to programming on a consistent basis and are often constrained by what an agency is able to procure in a short time period. In the private sector, adaptive approaches to supply chain management have been pursued in order to remain responsive to customers’ more bespoke needs while maintaining efficiency and reducing uncertainty. Techniques that support these systems, such as user or customer segmentation, could be considered by the humanitarian sector as a way of efficiently achieving greater responsiveness to crisis-affected people.

  1. This article draws on the discussion in: Obrecht and Bourne (2018). Making Humanitarian Response More Flexible. ALNAP/ODI: London


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