4 ways Participatory Adaptive Management practices helped respond to the worst forms of child labour

Child Labour: Action-Research-Innovation in South and South-Eastern Asia (CLARISSA) is a recently completed evidence and innovation-generation programme, responding to the challenge of the worst forms of child labour (WFCL) in Bangladesh and Nepal. WFCL is a challenge characterised by a poor understanding of its drivers and a lack of evidence on what works to combat it. To handle such fundamental uncertainty, the programme adopted a child-centric and participatory action research approach, using an adaptive management model to respond better to challenges and opportunities.

From its inception, the programme needed to navigate shocks and challenges, such as Covid-19 lockdowns, political upheaval, and sustained budget cuts, which put its capacity to learn and evolve to the test.

CLARISSA’s adaptive approach

This new paper Bridging Learning and Action: How Did CLARISSA’s Participatory Adaptive Management Approach Foster Innovation, Effectiveness, and Stakeholder Empowerment? shares insights emerging from evaluating CLARISSA’s participatory adaptive management (PAM) practices, connecting them with current discussions from the literature on adaptive management. It provides an in-depth evaluation of CLARISSA’s PAM approach, exploring how adaptive strategies were implemented and evolved throughout the programme’s life cycle. Multiple cases of adaptation and misadaptation were selected and analysed through a series of in-depth interviews and the review of programme documentation, allowing us to assess whether and how the adaptive management practices have been operationalised, the degree to which they led to enhanced decision-making and effectiveness, and their empowering effect on children and other programme stakeholders.

Why should you read this paper?

4 reasons this paper is different from other Adaptive Management reports you have read before:

1. Deep storytelling

The evaluation is remarkable for its comprehensive storytelling. It delves into adaptation cases that span from the early pre-proposal phases when the programme was first envisioned through to the final stages of the programme. This level of contextualization transcends the general principles often outlined in other adaptive management literature. By documenting how adaptive demands evolve over time and across various layers of programme operation, the evaluation provides readers with an immersive understanding of the practicalities involved. Additionally, glimpses of actual documents used in the programme enhance the narrative, offering a tangible sense of the processes at play.

CLARISSA’s timeline of adaptations across adaptive layers.   SOURCE: Authors’ own. Red (darker) hexagons represent responses to contextual demands; blue (lighter), to internal evaluative learning.

2. Conceptual engagement

Interestingly, staying close to these narratives of change provides plenty of opportunities to engage with multiple general concepts from the Adaptive Management literature, and to do so in ways that reflect better the kind of tensions, complexity and “messiness” that real-life adaptations comport. Human efforts rarely conform to the clear-cut conceptual categories that academics love to contrapose, like linear vs meandering, or planned vs emergent. Instead, reality forces programmes to engage simultaneously with both extremes, and the combinations in between. Different layers of action, multiple actors, conflicting demands from external and internal contexts interact with each other constantly in dynamic and usually contradictory ways which are frequently poorly captured in academic literature, and which this evaluation tried at least to expose.

3. Practical orientation

CLARISSA’s experience –and thus, the evaluation– nonetheless conveys the message that, despite all difficulties, failures and the unclarity involved, it is possible to find significant spaces and opportunities for experimentation, learning and adaptation. Together, they make a real difference, by allowing to improve in many ways the strategic, tactical and operational handling of programmes, enhancing the programme’s effectiveness while also providing a very enriching (though challenging) experience to the staff, stakeholders and the participants involved.

4. Integrated Multi-Layer Approach

The evaluation illustrates how adaptive management operates at multiple levels—delivery, programming, and governance—that support each other, enhancing the programme’s adaptive capacity. This holistic integration is underpinned by a process-oriented approach encompassing everything the programme’s does: its design, budgeting and planning, but also the tools and methods used for delivery. Adaptive Management is supported by structured learning processes such as journaling, reflection workshops, and After-Action Reviews (AARs). The systematic use of these tools within a continuous adaptive management cycle demonstrates a practical application of theories often discussed in the broader literature, but rarely implemented in such an integrated manner.

Overall, the evaluation offers valuable insights into the practical application of adaptive management in international development, showcasing how adaptive management can be effectively operationalized at scale and offering bits of “replicable insights” which could inspire other development programmes seeking to enhance their adaptive capacity and effectiveness.

Are you feeling curious? You can read the full paper to get to know this groundbreaking initiative better. You can contact me at [email protected] if there is anything you would like to discuss.