Politics matters, so what? Time for bigger bets (and more learning) on adaptive programming

Alan Hudson
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By Alan Hudson, Executive Director, Global Integrity, July 26, 2016

Politics matters. Context too. And blueprints have limited value. Our strategy is based on these insights, so we’re totally on board. A World Development Report (WDR) that puts power and politics center-stage, and that focuses more on function rather than form and best-fit rather than best-practice, would be a great step forward. But it would be a huge missed opportunity if the WDR were – as Duncan Green puts it here – to sink without trace or to contribute little more than another euphemism du jour for power and politics.

To be blunt, asserting that politics matters and providing a slightly different conceptualization of it, won’t get us very far. It won’t persuade the doubters. Nor will it help to generate the evidence that the believers need to inform their efforts to do development differently; evidence about whether, how and in what ways politics matters, and about how external actors can best support efforts to address the politics of implementation challenges.

In our view, the WDR could be strengthened – as could the IDA18 Replenishment process and other aspects of the World Bank’s operations – through a stronger focus on adaptive programming; the provision of technical and financial assistance in ways that, taking on board the fact that politics and context are key, support locally-led and context-sensitive efforts to address implementation gaps and contribute to better development results.

This is a point we made recently in a post on Learning for sustainable development results. We received positive feedback on that post but also requests to be more specific about what issues the World Bank would need to tackle – what functions it would need to strengthen – to sharpen, systematize and scale its adaptive programming. For now, to move the conversation along, here’s an initial list of functions that the World Bank should invest in to put adaptive programming into practice, and some initial thoughts about how they might do so.

  • Problem diagnosis: Up-front investment in problem diagnosis and political economy analysis, involving local stakeholders, to establish a clear framework (theory of change) for implementation, monitoring, reflection and adaptation.
  • Monitoring, evaluation and learning: Ongoing monitoring, reflection and adaptation, with encouragement for pro-active adaptation and real exit/failure options at mid-term, to include consideration of political dynamics and to involve local stakeholders.
  • Staffing & human resources: Staff competencies that ensure that staff have the capacity and skills needed for adaptive programming, and human resource incentives that reward results, learning and adaptation.
  • Procurement & contracting: Procurement and contracting processes that focus on results, that enable, support and incentivize adaptation, and that put into practice the open contracting principles that the World Bank and others have championed and that can enrich the informational environment for learning and adaptation.
  • Reporting & accountability: Reporting and accountability frameworks that balance learning and accountability, that focus on results rather than disbursements, and that allow and encourage adaptive and flexible approaches to achieve those results, including in the way in which country portfolios are managed.
  • Knowledge sharing: Systematic sharing across programs and projects of operational knowledge and lessons about implementation gaps and approaches to addressing them, with associated tracking of sharing, uptake, use and value of the knowledge shared.
  • Innovation Funds: Innovation funds of up to $Xm made available to all countries, without Board approval, and with less processing burden, to pilot agile and adaptive programming, with accompanying learning, and including support for the capacity of implementing organizations.


With more time and resources (perhaps this is something the World Bank and interested bilateral donors are doing right now?), a better list of key issues could draw on resources including: the vast experience of the World Bank; the analysis by the Global Delivery Initiative on “Delivery Challenges in Operations for Development Effectiveness”; the experience of bilateral donors including DFID and USAID; the experience of participants in the Doing Development Differently community of practice, the Practical Adaptation Network, and
other networks on adaptive learning and programming.

Adaptive programming is gaining some momentum at the World Bank as a way of addressing implementation gaps and the political challenges therein. The World Bank’s recent experience in Nigeria, in the health, agriculture and social protection sectors, and in India (through the Social Observatory), and elsewhere, its leadership of the Global Delivery Initiative, as well as the recent work of the Independent Evaluation Group on how the World Bank learns (report here, video here), and the hugely welcome focus on best-fit functions rather than best-practice forms in early outlines of the WDR for 2017, demonstrate this. Adaptive programming also aligns closely with the World Bank’s efforts to put knowledge, learning innovation and results at the center of its reform agenda (see here for the World Bank Management Response to the report of the Independent Evaluation Group on Learning and Results in World Bank Operations).

By strengthening the focus on adaptive programming – in the WDR, the IDA18 Process and elsewhere – the World Bank can build on this momentum. This will position the World Bank – along with other donors who are investing in this agenda and learning about how to put it into practice – at the leading edge of an agenda that has the potential to significantly boost development effectiveness, at the World Bank and beyond.

We are reaching out directly to World Bank colleagues working on the World Development Report and the IDA18 Replenishment process to encourage and support their efforts to put adaptive programming center-stage. If you have feedback on our initial list of issues, or suggestions as to what the World Bank should do to move forward with adaptive programming, please do let us know. Suggestions as to what the World Bank should stop doing – for instance, requiring prescriptive policy matrices for budget support, and providing only one “best-practice” option for project designs – might be useful too!

We look forward to being part of the discussion, helping to put adaptive programming (with bigger bets, and more learning) at the center of the governance and development agendas, at the World Bank and beyond. Not for its own sake but so that, if politics is the problem, external actors – supporting the country-level learning and political engagement that can make politics work for development – can be part of the solution. (See here for a  just-out must-read paper on “If politics is the problem …” by Shanta Devarajan and Stuti Khemani).

Alan Hudson
Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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