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This Is How We Are Learning the Ropes of Adaptive Management
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This Is How We Are Learning the Ropes of Adaptive Management

We blogged on adaptive management in May 2019. At that time, we admitted that we had a hard time figuring out what adaptive management was and wasn’t.

Fast forward to the year 2022: the COVID-19 epidemic. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Additionally, fragilities and uncertainties in the region where we work were unfolding: war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, political upheaval in Belarus, the fear of a new war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the rising tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. All of these increased the importance of knowing and applying adaptive management.

Doubtless, development cooperation is becoming more complex. This is mostly because of the contexts in which development cooperation takes place. For us, complexity is characterized by elements like uncertainty (e.g. inability to pre-evaluate actions), ambiguity (e.g. lack of awareness of events and causality), dynamic (e.g. rapid rate of change), and details and interfaces as well as significant political or external influences (e.g. numbers, types, and scope of crises).

In this blog post, we focus on the Eastern Partnership (EaP) region that covers the six countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. We try to show how the dynamic and complex context in the region affects development cooperation, and how organizations like Helvetas understand and act to overcome challenges and seize opportunities.

3 patterns of political & economic changes

The countries in the EaP region share a joint legacy of centrally steered and authoritarian government systems. The aspirations for inclusive and green economic development aim to have more decentralized and democratic systems with more space for private sector development. Success in economic development requires changes in institutional settings. The challenge is addressing years of underinvestment, weak institutions, and a difficult business environment.

Helvetas has identified three attributes that have characterized the EaP region’s governance systems and the potential for inclusive and green economic development.

The first attribute is the dominance of “traditional” institutions (public and private sector organizations) and elites (political and business leaders) determined to maintain the status quo by moving from manipulative to repressive authoritarianism. Repressive internal governance still dominates and continues to pivot around individual leaders and supporting elites (e.g. Belarus and Azerbaijan).

The second attribute shows countries making good progress with new, localized strategies that build on their strengths for governance and economic transition (e.g. Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine). Georgia started with promising reforms (e.g. regulatory and infrastructure), emerging from the legacy of dictatorship and corruption. Yet its polarized and personalized political system has given rise to reduced space for reforms.

In Armenia, civil society activism and voices from the public led to signs of improvements in governance and economic development. The country remains divided because of the intensification of political divisions (mainly also due to the war with Azerbaijan), and the reinforcement of political polarity that has historically plagued Armenian politics.

Moldova and Ukraine have also been part of the governance and economic transition. The transition has been characterized by failed authoritarian projects that sought to monopolize and hold on to political and economic power. This makes the political landscape highly fragile and difficult to anticipate due to deep-seated “oligarchical influence”.

Transformational governance and economic systems, as part of the third attribute, are yet to happen in the countries of the region. This has partly been driven by the hope for EU accession. It is still an important strategic objective for most countries — either symbolically or substantively. The recent decision to award Moldova and Ukraine EU candidate status may bring back the momentum for reform.

Implications for development cooperation

The implications for development cooperation remain too much below the waterline of public visibility, regionally as well as globally.

Helvetas views the complex and dynamic context of the EaP region both as a challenge and as an opportunity. In terms of challenges, contextual factors may delay the implementation of the organization’s work. These factors can hinder the clear identification of goals and objectives, affect the identification of target groups and the selection of economic sectors, and an appropriate project set-up, or it can even affect development outcomes.

As a case in point, due to the war in Ukraine, implementation of projects directly on the territory of Ukraine will not be possible until the cessation of active hostilities. Likewise, programming for Belarus will be hardly possible under the current conditions. Activities in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova remain valid with adjustments based on further analysis of the economic consequences of the war at the regional level (e.g. supply chain disruptions and general financial instability).

There are no easy fixes in complex and dynamic contexts. However, the context also presents opportunities for Helvetas. These could include organizational structures, improved strategies, and knowledge creation and learning processes. For instance, the conflict in Ukraine presents opportunities to revitalize and integrate the economies (by boosting export-oriented industries and trade standardization), speed up the transition to a green economy, and tap into migration and development areas (e.g., the integration of refugees into the labor markets of their host countries, as well as the support of new business opportunities for displaced people and private sector enterprises).

Helvetas is attempting to enhance its setup and position in the region by developing and reviewing adaptations to the implications of the context. This entails working with a variety of implementation partners and properly resourcing the local and global expert pools (in-house).

To detect and address risk, we are developing processes and systems. The resources required for adaptations will depend on the extent of the context’s impact. We are aware that it is important to be mindful of allocative efficiency (under or overspending), which is the capacity to set priorities within the budget and allocate resources based on the priorities and efficacy of development projects that Helvetas supports.

From “issue-based” responses to a systemic integration of crises, fragility, and complexity

To be honest, we continue to respond to problems that arise from a wider context. For project proposals, context analysis frequently takes the form of risk assessment and mitigation. Rarely is the analysis reviewed and used for implementation after proposals are approved.

Nevertheless, we are quickly learning and taking action to include it into our workplans so that we can predict, recognize, and report changes based on “early signals” at the appropriate moment. Change does not occur linearly in complex and dynamic situations. This indicates that a project’s logical framework is substantially determined by its matrix structure. This matrix promotes linear change thinking, which implies that projects have some degree of control over the situation and can forecast or make promises about what will happen over time.

On the contrary, the theory of change is complex and characterized by non-linear feedback loops: the projects’ actions interact with those of others and many other influencing factors. This triggers reactions that cannot be foreseen and makes the results of interventions unpredictable.

So, what are we doing? Here is a good example of how we are moving away from issue-based responses to a systemic integration of contexts and their implications.

At RECONOMY, we’ve also learned that it’s important to create a space that supports a paradigm shift away from being overly prescriptive up front and toward actively pausing to reflect, making informed judgments, and managing adaptively. Feedback loops were established in order to encourage change and the pursuit of excellence. Much was discovered and decided along the route, and it is now in place for further adaptation. Think of the hundreds of lives saved by the adaptable and responsive systems created in war zones or other politically unsafe environments.

Imagine the power of pausing to reflect, the knowledge gained, and the decisions made to handle situations adaptively and become better at what we do. What new insights may Helvetas gain if we continuously use adaptive management in project cycles, share the lessons we’ve learned, and compile best practices for wider application?



Zenebe Uraguchi

Zenebe Uraguchi is the Program Manager at RECONOMY. He is a development economist with multi-country experience (Asia, North America, Eastern Europe and Africa). His experience originates from working for a multinational private company, an international development bank and a research institute. His areas of expertise are in the design, management and evaluation of private, public and non-profit development initiatives focusing on employment and income.

Sabin Selimi

Sabin Selimi works for Helvetas as Knowledge Management, Learning, and Communications Manager at RECONOMY. His previous experience includes working in communication advisory roles for the government and various international development projects, with experience in the Balkans.


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