The development world is abuzz with discussions about how ‘adaptive management’ is critical to more effective aid. Proponents argue that iterative but structured processes of decision making are needed if aid interventions are to deal with the uncertainty inherent in complex and dynamic systems. This paper agrees that adaptive management is vital but contends that aspirations to apply adaptive management within aid programmes are usually doomed before they can be put into practice because of decisions made prior to or during programme design. Quite literally aid programmes are designed to fail.

Where aid fails, it has a lot to do with a lot of things. Corruption, politics, ideology, bad interventions and bad luck have all had a role to play. But there is also the significant influence of bad programme design that constrains programmes from being able to adapt and achieve the large-scale, sustainable change they aim for.

There are several factors that lead to bad programme design and several consequences of it that lead to negative programme outcomes.

Right from the outset, the parameters of a design can be set inappropriately as a result of aid allocations. The design process also plays an important role. One of the factors that dictates what the design process can be is the phenomenon of New Public Management . Indeed, incomplete and inappropriate programme designs are both caused and perpetuated by the contracting mechanisms of New Public Management.

New Public Management can lead to individual and organisational incentives aligning to avoid perceived risks. The real risk of course is the risk of development programmes not realising their potential desired long-term impact, but this risk is traded off in order to reduce perceived personal and corporate risks in the short term – the covering of backs.

The resultant incomplete or inappropriate designs have ramifications throughout the programme cycle which can negatively impact on programme outcomes.

This contractual environment can also determine who and how key personnel are recruited, often another impediment to putting adaptive management into practice.

This paper looks at some key issues affecting programme design and how they impinge on the ability of programmes to manage adaptively, and provides recommendations on how things might be improved to deliver better development impact.

The paper draws on secondary data and empirical research as well as collective experience across a wide range of funders and programmes across 25 years, particularly those aiming to promote systemic change. The systemic change approach has emerged in response to dissatisfaction with the limited scale and sustainability achieved by conventional development approaches, which have sought to deliver solutions directly into the hands of the poor. Instead, the approach tries to understand and change the systems on which poor people depend. This entails influencing the performance of actors within the system. The role of development intervention is temporary and catalytic – ‘facilitative’. This requires on-going analysis to understand constraints and evolving dynamics in the system, and a high degree of responsiveness to complex and changing conditions. Adaptive management is therefore essential to successful implementation of the approach.

The paper is relevant to all development fields that aim to bring about enduring systemic change to benefit large numbers of poor and disadvantaged people. It is hoped that all readers might find it interesting, but it could be useful on a practical level for funders of development programmes and those involved in their management.

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