Six Months of Learning (and Improving) at RECONOMY
Time flies as the saying goes. It’s been a pretty busy six months since we started implementing the RECONOMY program. It’s a 12-country inclusive and green economic development initiative in Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and the Western Balkans, in partnership between the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and Helvetas.
We started in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were full of enthusiasm for doing something interesting and innovative. We’re still. Then came the border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This has jolted more the domestic political scenes in Armenia than Azerbaijan. Belarus has also been going through its own political challenge.
Out of the frying pan to the fire, one may think. All these have increased the complex, interconnected, and dynamic context of the region. Looking back, we’re thinking this’s adaptive management in practice. Or is it?
How do you manage a 12-country program remotely?
In restricted mobility and interaction, understating the nature of the COVID-19 impacts and regional conflict/instability is a precondition for responding effectively. No surprise: the implementation of the Program has slowed down.
We’ve revised/adapted how pilots are implemented with more shifts towards remote digital means. The context has affected more those activities requiring meetings, for example, in-person capacity development, dialogues, and coordination with key stakeholders and target groups.
We wrote in one of our blog posts arguing that work is a thing we do and not a place we go to. So, it was time for us to walk the talk.
There have been frequent coordination and exchanges with partners. In the short term, ad hoc measures were required to address the economic fallouts from the pandemic. RECONOMY has been conscious of not putting partners and communities at risk (e.g. through spreading the virus and imperiling already weak local health systems). The Program has adjusted budgets and reformulated some activities to respond to the immediate needs.
In the mid to the long term, tapping into opportunities and supporting public and private partners for a more agile response is critical. In addition to the ad hoc measures, the Program has intensified learning from and responding to the ever-changing and evolving nature of the context.
As much as the pandemic is a crisis within a crisis, it has also offered some opportunities. The challenge often, however, is the lack of attention to a crisis in a more systematic way with a medium to long-term perspective. RECONOMY has initiated support-related functions, such as business and financial services, coordination, and skills development. It also focuses on policy issues to respond effectively to private sector enterprises mainly the small and medium ones.
The strategic implications of the complex and dynamic context of the region for the Program are adapting to a ‘polycrisis’ – the COVID-19 pandemic as a health crisis to begin with, but its impacts will continue to affect political and socio-economic crisis. The Program is thus adapting its interventions to address both short and long-term challenges to contribute to ‘building back better’ in line with its strategic objective and focus.
Embracing competing development objectives
The development objective of a Program like RECONOMY can have competing objectives. This could be ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number of people vis-à-vis adhering to the ‘leave no one behind’ principle; broader changes in systems vis-à-vis fundamental and deeper changes; economic development benefits vis-à-vis limited environmental value additions.
The RECONOMY Program is no exception in dealing with such trade-offs.
We aimed to make the design and management of the Program flexible and adaptable. We also tried to continuously learn from and respond to opportunities to address key areas of inclusive and green economic development. Indeed, the Program’s broad mandate offered us a range of options and opportunities to both stimulate growth and creation of economic opportunities and ensure access to these opportunities, particularly for the more disadvantaged and vulnerable in the Program’s target group.
However, it was also important to assess the different options and prioritize those which can generate results and benefits for the target group within the Inception Phase. Practically speaking, this means narrowing down the remit of RECONOMY.
We saw two ways of doing this: technical and operational.
Technically for its regional value addition, the Program is using three entry points. We start with common/shared problems. We then move to identify common actors. Indeed, people don’t live in regions but in countries. Thus, we also have in-country focus and testing of pilots in some of the countries. This also means prioritizing economic sectors/systems that align with most of the workstreams/cross-cutting issues (e.g. finance, regulatory systems, trade and migration, green economic development). The economic sectors/systems also need to be both relevant and feasible to achieve the theory of change of the Program and offer opportunities for inclusive and green economic development.
Operationally, the Program is structured with a thinly resourced team working mostly remotely and in coordination with Implementing Partners. This has required having a clear structure on the ground for operationalizing diagnosis and designing and implementing pilots.
Let’s be honest: between July and September, we were scratching our head and so were our partners. Our efforts appeared to pay off: between October and December, we relatively managed to create a good level of shared understanding of the objective of the Program with partners. We capitalized more on its existing networks and experience. We also generated additional knowledge and identified and engaged stakeholders.
Overall, stimulating facilitative economic development through changing mindsets takes time. Its success depends on continuous dialogue and exchange, as well as the use of existing resources in the region.
Armed with this learning, we’re now synthesizing and integrating lessons from the Inception Phase set-up into the Main Phase programming. As we move ahead, this may require more ground presence of the Program than the current structure.
Analysis and continuous adaptation
RECONOMY builds on the findings of the various assessments to deepen its understanding, fill in gaps by doing more analysis and continuous adaptation, and as new knowledge and learning emerge, improving existing interventions and designing new ones.
The Program team is leading the process. Partners like CIPE, SDA, and Help are contributing to the generation of ideas and information flow, as well as the use of existing networks. They are supported by international and regional/local backstoppers on specific technical expertise.
Yet, we see diagnosis as an ongoing process. The reason is obvious – information and knowledge are partial and incomplete at any given stage of implementation.
It’s also critical to strengthen the nexus between Knowledge Management and Learning, Communication, and Monitoring and Results Measurement, i.e. the ‘triad’. We believe that this’s critical for more consistent knowledge-sharing and learning culture, as well as harvesting of lessons and their integration into the design of the Main Phase. They’ll also ensure successful collaboration across stakeholders in the region for collaboration and sustainable development.
The Program has worked on integrating information and analysis with the management process for improving program strategy and implementation. The development of IT solutions is expected to enhance Program efficiency.
Closing the loop – back to adaptive management
Programs like RECONOMY are complex not because of size, cost, and duration, or the challenge of integrating advances in technology. It’s mainly because the systems in which development work takes place are complex adaptive systems.
This means that designing, implementing, and monitoring, and measuring results isn’t about following checklists or formulae. Given the regional complexity and dynamism, RECONOMY has learned for the past six months that translating adaptive management to creativity and innovation will require three things.
First, inclusive culture and collaborative environment with partners with a clear commitment to understanding and applying principles of a systemic approach.
Second, adequate investment and human capital and partnership development strategy for creative minds and passion of people and organizations with a purpose.
Third, the need to step out of the organizational comfort zone of donors and implementing organizations like Sida and Helvetas to adapt internal procedures and be willing to undertake risks while implementing suitable mechanisms to mitigate these risks.
With these points in mind, RECONOMY offers opportunities to put in place systems that respond to and achieve inclusive and green economic development.