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Physically distanced adaptive management

Opportunities and challenges for local leadership

During World War II, women took on roles society would never have imagined them for. We thrived. When the soldiers came back, women did not return quietly to their homes. Something had changed that could not be undone.

We are perhaps poised at a similar moment for international development, suggests Eva Schiffer from USAID. In the past, international staff have ‘taken the front row’ in discussions and decision making. But, as Coronavirus forced countries to lock down, many expats (especially working for donors) were flown home and got out of the way. Eva describes how local teams have flourished, filling the space with aplomb.

What has been dreamt about for decades (in terms of local leadership) was realised in days. How, then, can we make sure this change sticks after the pandemic?

Variations of this question were echoed repeatedly during our virtual session on physically distanced adaptive management:

The crisis situation has forced international development to make many long awaited changes.

How do we make sure changes are capitalised on? How can we make them as useful as possible? How can we learn and adapt what is not working? How can we learn what works? How can we make the changes stick?

So, what has shifted during Covid? How can we answer the questions above?

At DFID’s LearnAdapt event, hosted by Jamie Pett and I, several brilliant, informed speakers shared their perspectives on the opportunities and challenges for local leadership offered by the Covid-19 crisis.

The speakers spoke to small pods of participants to create a safe space for everyone to engage easily. (Some videos of the talks are linked to speakers’ names through this blog, and at the bottom you can find who spoke and videos/insights from the 5 minute talks. Here are the slides with reflections from the participants).

Tapping the collective wisdom of 60 participants, these are some of the insights that emerged:

Virtual participation

International development has a long standing love of meetings. We bring people together to one physical place, often at great time cost of hours on bumpy roads (sometimes even paying people to participate 🤦).

While Covid has not changed our love of meetings, it has changed how we hold them (virtually) and who participates.

Virtual meetings have had a fantastic impact on diversifying participation and engagement in meetings in Myanmar (Su Phyo Lwin from the Paung Sie Facility in Myanmar). A larger number of people are joining, participants come from all regions rather than just the city and include a greater number of women and young people. Typing in the chat box needs less confidence than speaking up in meetings, so diverse perspectives (and new voices) are heard.

However, relying on technology excludes those who don’t have connection or don’t feel comfortable with the technology. This can amplify existing exclusions (e.g. those who were excluded previously are least likely to have access to technology). It’s also harder to build trust virtually. This means that removing technical hurdles for local leaders should be priority and time should be set aside to engender genuine connection.

Supporting local teams

Adaptive management rests on decision making sitting with local teams who are close to where the effects of work are felt. When we are being adaptive we test ideas, notice what has happened, learn and adapt in response.

When understanding the context, formal analysis is not enough. Deep understanding depends on the relationships and tacit knowledge (Rose Pinnington) of local teams.

As a sector, we recognise this, but then expats often take time and space away from more locally led discussions and decision making.

We heard examples of how more virtual support can provide an opportunity to offer requested input without getting ‘in the way’.

Annette Fisher described how a DFID programme in Pakistan, ‘The Sub-national Governance Programme’ is holding remote ‘live learning’ sessions. Space is held by people in the UK as ‘critical friends’ asking questions, but the rich discussions happen in-country. The reflection sessions are focused on ways of working during the pandemic, rather than activities. The team would love to join with others to explore how remote reflection can help a team manage itself better.

Participants were intrigued about the role of being a ‘critical friend’, and pondered how remote staff can take on that role in a supportive way, without taking over decision making.

Donor mechanisms

A programmes’ ability to adapt often depends on donor buy-in, and that can take time.

In recent years many donors have recognised the power of adaptive programming in response to complex challenges and contexts. And it was pointed out in the discussions that donors have issued grants really quickly during Covid-19, which was heartily welcomed (and encouraged to continue!).

However, donors pointed out that it’s not always super easy for donors to allow programmes to pivot. Irrespective of their desire to get behind the vision of local actors, donors are tied to generating stories that provide accountability to their ministers. That is, once donors have committed to one narrative to get government funding, it’s hard to change that story.

A suggestion that emerged was the importance of ‘cutting out the middleman’ of international NGOs and linking local leaders directly with the donors they are accountable to. Simplify donor requirements and let local leaders tell their compelling stories.


In the age of Covid-19, nearly every programme is having to pivot. Old plans go out the window as programmes are forced to adapt to the new situation.

While this should always be the case, it’s amplified in turmoil of this current situation.

Plans are made and remade. They are revisited, ripped up and remodelled. Then the process starts again. The very practical question asked by participants was, what time frame should we plan for? What’s the longest we can realistically plan for?

A concern echoed in several places was around how to make sure that longer term goals and ambitions for programmes are held, while the programme pivots to meet immediate needs.

Digital data collection

The anticipated efficiencies and opportunities of digital data collection have been recognised for a long time, but it’s been hard to shift to reality. The use of digital tools are often presumed to be expensive and tricky to use.

Now we have to collect data digitally, Covid has shown us that it’s not as hard as we think it is.

And, of course, having (started to) get over this hurdle, there are more questions we should ask ourselves:

  • Once we have the data, who is using it? And how do we make sure it’s used for decision making?
  • One suggestion: Share the data with local partners, to inform their decision making

Going digital with heart

As more and more communication and coordination is done online, how can we make sure we’re learning together about what works? There is a real thirst for sharing knowledge about the very practical parts of being physically distanced.

What are the tools that work best for physically distanced teams?

As faces beamed, and small group conversations bubbled, people shared that they would like to continue connecting remotely in ways that bring our hearts into our work. The glimpses we get into people’s real lives as they work remotely, moments for asking about how people really are, make a huge difference to how connected we feel.

And when we are connected, we build relationships and trust, bridging the physical distance and giving us the confidence to be adaptive.


Annette Fisher — Social accountability researcher and practitioner

Eva Schiffer — Senior Learning Specialist — Dexis Consulting Group

Katherine Haggerty — Better Delivery Department, DFID

Lukas Borkowski — Director of European Partnerships, Viamo

Rosie Pinnington — DPhil Researcher, Donor approaches to supporting public sector reform in Africa

Ruth Rhoads Allen — President and Chief Collaboration Officer, CDA Collaborative

Soni Khanal — Program and Learning Manager, Accountability Lab Nepal

Su Phyo Lwin — Peacebuilding and Social Cohesion Portfolio Manager for Paung Sie Facility

Rosie Pinnington’s presentation:





The world is changing. Learn. Adapt. Thrive.

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Emma Proud

Emma Proud

On a journey to explore Behavioural Innovation — the mindsets, methods and mechanisms we need for innovation to thrive

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