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Discussing Adaptive Approaches for Development Programmes

What can adaptive approaches from other sectors teach development practitioners about dealing with uncertainty?

In early October, we gathered to explore this question, aiming to move beyond dogmatic ideas and confusing language to share what works in practice. The event built on a recent ODI working paper which translates key principles from agile, lean startup and human-centred design to the development sector.

In case you missed the workshop, or would like to see it again, you can watch the videos below.

Part 1: Introduction

First off, I gave a rapid introduction to agile, lean startup and human-centred design. I suggest that practitioners should be pragmatic, not dogmatic in applying the approaches and make the most of the rituals. Adaptive approaches from the private sector can be an answer for development challenges — if you’re asking the right questions.

If this has piqued your interest, you might like to read a previous blog post, discussing four ways development practitioners can borrow from private sector approaches.

Part 2: Adaptive approaches in practice

We were lucky to hear from two people who apply adaptive approaches in their work: Temitope Isedowo, Director of Programmes at AfriLabs and Marie-Claude Villacorta (Innovations Specialist at UNICEF Malawi).

In the video below, Temitope Isedowo talks about combining agile, lean and human-centred design for a radio learning programme in northern Uganda. AfriLabs uses an experimental approach with a smaller group to be able to understand what works. The team explicitly set out their beliefs and test them and built in the ability to reflect and change.

Marie-Claude Villacorta talks about using human-centred design to develop the UNICEF Malawi country programme document 2019–2023. The team spent more time in the problem space before going to solutions, empathising with communities concerned. The document has three pillars — early childhood, school-age children and child-friendly communities. This encouraged UNICEF Malawi to work across silos of health and education. By looking at the problems in different ways, they are now looking at solutions they wouldn’t have considered in the past.

Temitope and Marie-Claude’s top tips are to :

  • Learn by practising — try the approaches out and see what works in the context you’re in
  • Start with baby steps — you might not have an entire budget to throw at one of these approaches, but you can try it out in a small way

Part 3: Q&A

After some breakout groups, we finished off the session with Emma Proud chairing a Q&A session with the three presenters above answering questions about:

  • The future of adaptive programming
  • How adaptive approaches allow you to be rigorous about wasting less time and resources
  • Being adaptive in a humanitarian context
  • Challenges and opportunities for adaptive working in Covid crisis
  • The need for donors and governments to be more adaptive



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Jamie Pett

Jamie Pett


Facilitation, complexity, learning and network weaving. Board Co-chair @ RESULTS UK. Founder @ LondonLIDN. Associate @ Curiosity Society. he/his/him