Advancing Work with the Grain at USAID
In December 2017, I wrote a blog about some of the insights gained during a workshop on Context-Driven Adaptation, where many of our sharpest field officers shared the ways that they assessed and adapted to shifts in context to keep programming relevant and effective. Recently, a few colleagues have asked what the team behind that training have done since then, and so I thought I’d post again to describe some of the steps we’ve taken and resources we’ve gathered to support staff and partners and follow through on the commitments we made last year.
First, here is a quick overview for those not familiar with the topic area. The starting point is that the ability of USAID programs to achieve development outcomes and promote self-reliance depends on our understanding of the local context, especially the incentives that lie behind observed behaviors and outcomes. Context is always changing, so learning about context and adapting programs accordingly is a critical ongoing task. This approach is often called Thinking and Working Politically (TWP), though, for purposes of our material on ProgramNet and Learning Lab, we have called them our Context-Driven Adaptation (CDA) Collections (internal link / external link).
The Cross-Sectoral Programs Division in the DRG Center, together with staff from USAID’s Local Sustainability Office; Policy, Planning and Learning Bureau; Office of Acquisition and Assistance, and the Global Development Lab have been supporting this work and collaborated on the workshop last year. We heard from the Foreign Service Officers and Foreign Service Nationals that TWP/CDA are not new ideas. They are something many of our staff and partners have done to varying degrees (though they describe using a variety of terms) and yet, it’s neither easy to do nor frequently recognized as an area where techniques and tools can be intentionally applied. We also heard clearly that, despite lots of broad language authorizing and encouraging adaptive management, there was a desire for more specific, practical applications of what this could look like within everyday programming.
The Context-Driven Adaptation Collection is an effort to curate material and examples that highlight practical ways to do this sort of work. We’ve divided it into six sections: 1) a core resources page that includes our Political Economy Analysis (PEA) Guide and a variety of our most foundational go-to resources that describe the approach; 2) a monitoring, evaluation, and sensing context section (internal/external) that focuses on contextual learning; 3) a power dynamics and project design section (internal/external) on how to incorporate these considerations in project and activity designs; 4) context-driven, adaptive solicitations and awards (internal/external), which offers ideas and examples to weave TWP into the ways we engage with implementing partners; 5) adapting in practice (internal/external), focused on day-to-day management and experiences; and 6) a number of videos (internal/external) of USAID staff speaking on what they’ve done and how it worked in their own words as well as some webinars that delve into key topics such as PEA.
Much of the material we’ve gathered draws from publications by partners, other donors, think tanks, and academics, but some we crafted ourselves. I’m particularly proud of our series of tips, which strive to provide simple and practical ideas that are ready-to-use.
The current set of tips includes: 1) tips on solicitations that cross-reference posted Request for Proposals and Notice of Funding Opportunities; 2) tips on context monitoring that addresses political economy considerations; 3) tips on structuring and using advisory councils; 4) tips on reflecting power dynamics in theories of change; 5) tips on managing context-driven adaptation from a COR/AOR perspective; and 6) tips on building TWP capacity in local partners. All of these are short and sweet, and we think quite easy to apply.
Of course, curating and developing material for the Collection isn’t all we’ve been up to in this space. The CSP Division and other proponents of TWP and more systems-based approaches to development programming see it as an area of emphasis that overlaps with a lot of related Agency-reform efforts, and we’ve built out those connections in order to better frame attention to power and incentives as one part of a comprehensive, effective way of programming. We’ve collaborated with PPL colleagues on toolkits and resources for Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) including a wealth of material on adaptive management, including featuring TWP in a panel at Moving the Needle and encouraging partners who apply TWP to submit to the CLA Case Competition. Folks in the Lab have defined TWP as one of their areas for innovation and we’ve been collaborating with them around connections with real-time data use and mobile technology. We’ve found tremendous common ground with the market systems practice within the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment, and the Bureau for Food Security, and have read some of their materials describing a shift to a market systems approach as great guideposts for TWP, as well as sharing our own input with them. TWP is enhanced by an understanding of the context as a local system, and we’ve collaborated with the Local Systems Community to explore areas of overlap. And we’ve been eagerly following and supporting the Local Works initiative, which put a lot of the latest thinking from all of these areas into practice with a deliberate effort to foster local leadership. Implementing partners have also been shaping the conversation, with a couple of excellent events by the Washington, D.C. chapter of the TWP community.
In addition to those collaborations, we’ve been working with our colleagues in missions to support PEAs, including in the last year in Guatemala, Nepal, and Senegal. And we continue to offer regular training on PEA and its use as a springboard to more context-driven, adaptive programming.
So what’s next? Well, we’ll be learning from cases where teams are considering incentives and applying context-driven adaptation as they assess the capacity and commitment of a country on the journey to self-reliance and fit our programming to match. We also stand ready to support these efforts where they’re happening, including through some planned work with localworks teams in different countries--including Morocco in October. A blog series is coming out that will look at some of the challenges of working with the grain to achieve an outcome, while also supporting inclusion as a core value and having ambitious objectives of transformational change in societies whose “grain” may be quite exclusive. We’re continuing to develop practical tips - the next one on finding unusual allies and building innovative alliances. And we’re deepening the conversation whenever possible, with missions, USAID/Washington staff, and partners. If you’d like to keep up with this work, we invite you to join our TWP Learning Listserv (email Sarah Swift: firstname.lastname@example.org to be added) and share your thoughts - what would help you? What would you want examples or tips around? We look forward to feedback and ideas!
 See, for example Adaptive Management Discussion Note