Lab Evaluation, Research, and Learning (ERL) Plan Question 2 Brief

Speeches Shim

QUESTION 2: How can the Lab/ STIP best support Agency programming to adapt within shifting environments?

This Evidence Brief was produced as part of a series of outputs from the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Evaluation, Research, and Learning (ERL) Plan - a utilization-focused learning agenda supporting evidence-informed decision making in Lab operations and science, technology, innovation, and partnerships (STIP) programming. A process and set of products, the ERL Plan facilitated Lab learning and adaptation around four bureau-wide areas of inquiry: uptake of products, services, and approaches; adaptive management tools and practices; support to awardees and partners; and sustainability of results.

Insights from the ERL Plan are shared here as a record of emerging opportunities for evidence-based adaptation that could be acted on by USAID and other development actors. This work also contributes to the evidence base for the Agency-wide Self-Reliance Learning Agenda - an effort to support USAID as it reorients its strategies, partnership models, and program practices to achieve greater development outcomes and foster self-reliance with host country governments and our partners. 


Development programming operates in complex and emergent environments. Historically, development programming has been driven by relatively rigid results frameworks and logic chains that don’t account for this complexity and emergence. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to adapt; by the end of a program, we may find that it has “failed” because the context has shifted so much as to make the intervention ineffective or even irrelevant.

Complexity is only increasing, especially in certain areas and sectors such as non-permissive environments (NPEs) and in countering violent extremism (CVE) programming. We should also expect that we will increasingly be doing development work in these kinds of environments, as growth in stable countries means that the remaining low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) will mainly be fragile and conflict-affected states prone to unpredictable and emergent conditions.

Furthermore, responsible use of taxpayer dollars requires adaptation, especially in shrinking public donor budget environments. Adaptation may be perceived as expensive, but how much money do we spend on interventions that don’t work, only to find out too late to change them? We must adapt to changes in context in order to successfully achieve desired outcomes in the most responsible, efficient, and effective way possible.

There is no argument among development donors and other actors that managing development programs and interventions to be responsive to new information or changing conditions is preferable. While much has been written about the why of managing development programs adaptively, there is less agreement on the “what” and the “how.”

USAID has recognized the need to fill this gap and has begun piloting a number of approaches that can facilitate adaptive management (AM) throughout its Program Cycle. Those approaches can be roughly categorized into the following emergent framework:

AM Approaches for Overcoming Information Barriers (e.g., not having the right information at the right time)

AM Approaches for Overcoming Structural/Process Barriers (e.g., our own procurement policies and contract management practices)

AM Approaches for Overcoming Internal and External Value Barriers (e.g., our own organizational culture and tolerance for risk, the organizational culture of our partners, or misalignment of our values to those of the beneficiaries)

The brief is intended to inform and support a discussion that will surface additional findings and conclusions related to the question. It summarizes:

• What is the information?

How can the USAID US Global Development Lab (the Lab) and Science, Technology, Innovation, and Partnership (STIP) best support Agency programming to adapt within shifting environments?

• So what?

What does this mean for us (in the Lab/at USAID/as development practitioners more broadly)?

• Now what?

Given this information, what should we do going forward, particularly in light of Agency redesign?

This priority question was identified by the Lab’s Evaluation and Impact Assessment Office (EIA) as a theme across the Lab that emerged from several Centerlevel ERL questions and activities. Some ERL activities have already been completed, and their findings and conclusions are taken as inputs to this analysis. Others are still ongoing, in which case, preliminary findings from those activities are used where available and will be updated as new information becomes available. Download the full report for findings, conclusions and recommendations. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020 - 3:30pm