FYI: What We're Reading

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David Jacobstein

Jun 30, 2022, 4:55:11 PM6/30/22
to LCD TA SUB Working Group Mail List (USAID), Adaptive Development | #AdaptDev, TWP.Learning
Hi all,

Here in the Washington area, it's been strangely gorgeous weather recently (this is meant to be the time of year when everyone melts in the heat and complains about it), making it difficult to focus on reading. But it's also been a quarter full of interesting publications, so hopefully it's a good moment wherever you are to read something thought provoking! Here's what we've been reading lately:
  • First, a quick check-in on how the TWP/adaptive management agenda is going; it finds that civil society doesn't feel that there is too much meaningful uptake. I find it interesting, as I think this discussion unwittingly replicates the power dynamics of donor work - it suggests that for TWP to be happening, people must understand the terms and report on doing it in those fashions. I'd argue quite the opposite - that it should be a challenge to donors to enable TWP without requiring the "alienating language" of our jargon in order to make it visible. While donor practices can evolve to enable this more, such as by better highlighting what constitutes a project rooted in political understandings of how change happens (work we're pursuing through the TWP COP, among others), the actual politically-savvy work of implementers need not use our tools or language, and it is up to us to recognize it.
  • On the other hand, here's a different take on adaptive management which sees it welcomed, if not as groundbreaking, then at least as useful, by a number of CSOs. It embeds a number of great articles with calls and evidence toward adaptive management, and is a useful summary of where we've gotten (and where we have left to go). As Tom concludes, "For me, the issue of the day is no longer whether there is any credible evidence that adaptive programming can work and that it can merit the investment. Instead, it’s about effectively marshalling contextually relevant evidence, and better understanding how to prompt some degree adaptive “tolerance” inside organisations beyond innovators and early adopters."
  • For a sense of what activists want (rather than PEA tools or training in adaptive logframes), here's a provocative report from JASS on supporting movements. As they say, listening to and trusting movement leaders is key. If donors can't do this directly with funding, the question they should be asking isn't "how do we make our implementers adapt more" so much as "how do we describe the work of using our resources to benefit social movements for change indirectly" and defining appropriate objectives and results to match. The onus is on donors to properly define our work, and that's the only way we will actually be listening.
  • As an example of how this plays out in painful reality, here are two items on Ukraine. First, an article from the RINGO network (whose work to develop alternative platforms for funding, see here, is really fascinating - full disclosure, I've been part of some of this work). Second, an article around the humanitarian response in Ukraine, quite critical of many efforts. Ukraine's response is particularly interesting because existing capacity proved robust, at least initially - as the UKHIH report notes, "For the first six weeks post-invasion, virtually all humanitarian aid inside Ukraine was organised  and implemented by local actors, including around 150 pre-existing national NGOs, church groups, and around 1,700 newly formed local aid groups. An informal aid sector has developed  organically, with groups largely following a similar operational model: volunteers pooling personal  resources, responding to incoming requests for assistance in their area, and incrementally  expanding their reach as resources allow. These groups (together with local authorities), remain  the principal aid providers but are quickly being exhausted of funds, fuel, and physical energy.  The groups that are actively scaling up and becoming registered as new aid organisations have done so by finding donors mostly from outside the formal humanitarian sector." Figure 1 is particularly amazing (sorry I can't grab it) with a visual depiction of the size of organizations in Ukraine, really showing host much it is a local response. Of interest to me in particular, Ukrainian organisations notes that "it was their non-humanitarian donors (for instance, international groups focused on democracy promotion and human rights) that responded more rapidly and managed to transfer larger and more flexible funding quickly, to support immediate humanitarian work." It bears closer examination, but in terms of ability to rapidly adapt to a shock and provide flexible funding it seems that existing relationships plus objectives around broader outcomes such as a stronger civil society outperformed grand bargain commitments in a context of careful compliance and value-for-money decision-making; or in other words, adaptiveness is a byproduct of better objectives/theories of action rather than a quality overlaid on top of them.
  • Perhaps connectedly, an excellent paper out of RTI looking at integrated governance finds that the value-add of integration is at least partially where adaptive practices and TWP are part of the integration, such that it reframes other sector work to address sustainable local systems.
  • Speaking of Ukraine, I was completely fascinated by this in-depth review of the complicated array of approaches to combatting corruption that may have played a key role in allowing the Ukrainian army to reform and become effective. Written by folks who were directly involved, with a wealth of detail, it both explains and offers nuance around how reformers work over time, both inside and outside of bureaucracies, to push for reforms, and how those reforms may go on to matter tremendously. Their related post on corruption and social norms also offers a number of clear and useful cases related to the topic.
  • The big splash of the quarter has been the publication of Stefan Dercon's Gambling on Development, a book that basically takes the idea of political economy and argues it is the central factor in whether states achieve developmental gains. Here's a video description and here's a short intro. For members of this community, it may not seem such an insight to focus on elite bargains that, for their own reasons, support growth-promoting policies; still, it adds to the call for a reconceptualizing of why development obtains and how outsiders can make it more likely. For a more detailed look at elite bargains and political settlements, here's a thorough academic take full of practical tools that is a great complement.
  • If you want to think about how this political settlements idea plays out in practice, a very helpful review is this article on bureaucrats who matter. It's valuable because it clearly explains in real examples how second-best solutions can be aimed at, and some key actors who help them to exist over time, not by being a "champion" for technically-correct ideas necessarily, but by having the access to push for difficult reforms to be maintained over time and using it just to keep on course.
  • Finally, some quick hitters:
    • For anyone interested in participatory processes and theories of change, here's a great webinar on building a joint narrative - this sort of participatory sense-making and story telling is, I think, a much more open way to engage with actors around how change happens and derive good indicators than expecting partners to learn new lingos and redescribe their world in ways to make it visible to donors.
    • A fascinating research piece from Italy on the somewhat unexpected finding that at least in Italy, stronger social ties result in better taxes rather than tax evasion.
    • Another unexpected piece and great example of systems thinking in this study of USAID/Uganda agriculture work using causal loop diagrams with dynamic hypotheses to find that a binding constraint was lack of demand for loans more than access to credit - great example of cool techniques and also interesting work for those interested in ag topics.
    • A great IDS study on the cross-donor synergy, which seems underexplored as a topic and another good challenge to how donors imagining change will happen - focusing on better defining the respective role of our programs. Their contrast of three types of work (disconnect, parallel play, or synergy) is clear and helpful.
    • Reflections on social audits in India and what they can achieve independently versus as part of a broader effort at change.
    • A related paper (gated) on the role of social brokerage in India as a way accountability happens or doesn't, with another couple of great terms: "I argue that effective social brokerage requires both vernacularization (giving information meaning in local contexts) and interlocution (speaking to and between multiple audiences). This, in turn, rests upon a powerful—but often elusive—combination of community embeddedness and ties to bureaucracy."
    • An excellent article from a UNDP sandbox (great concept) around how they are approaching M&E as a form of joint learning and sense-making. There's an invitation to join, and I think this is some of the most promising exploration I've seen of key topics. As they note, "In the M&E Sandbox we collectively explore approaches that privilege continuous learning and adaptation, see learning as a result in itself, take a systems view, and measure progress and aggregate results across a portfolio" and they are looking for partners to learn jointly with.

  • Finally, I can't imagine anyone has missed it, but a major Brookings article and a host of fascinating commentaries around USAID's efforts at locally-led development, and various considerations thereof - definitely worth a long read and full of provocative and intriguing ideas!


David Jacobstein 

DCHA/DRG Policy, Coordination and Integration Team

United States Agency for International Development

T: (202) 712-1469

Context-Driven Adaptation Collection:

Pedro Prieto Martín

Jul 1, 2022, 7:44:15 AM7/1/22
to Adaptive Development | #AdaptDev
Thanks so much, David, 
for sharing the resources and your reflections. Very useful, as always!!

I have added (some of) them to the Adaptive Management Knowledge Base (with 1,676 resources and still slowly growing!), which is available at:

So... this is just a reminder to the AM community that they can use this Knowledge Base when in need of information or inspiration.

The user interface is great (thanks to the generous work of and allows searching, browsing and filtering very easily.

This database is also accessible as a Zotero collection ( 
Those of you familiar with Zotero may want to join the group here, to get all resources into your desktop Zotero app, access all pdfs directly, and hopefully also contribute additional relevant references to the DB.


Arjun Tasker

Oct 30, 2023, 9:52:34 AM10/30/23
to David Jacobstein, Adaptive Development | #AdaptDev, LCD TA SUB Working Group Mail List (USAID), TWP.Learning
An older one

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