News & Insights

Adapting: when you’re not designed to

Ms Nguyen Thi Minh Huong, Director of Advocacy Department, Women's Union Vietnam delivers opening remarks at a training course on Victim Support and Protection

Thank goodness for the meme revolution to keep us entertained and informed during a time of crisis. One that went round the viral loops was a letterboard sign that read: ‘Can we all agree that in 2015 not a single person got the answer correct to "where do you see yourself five years from now."’

Epidemiologists aside, nobody could have predicted a global pandemic, and the impact it would have on every aspect of our lives. The international development sector is no exception, with the pandemic testing our ability to plan in neat five-to-10-year windows and turning the concept of linear and predictable progress on its head. For the small number of programs that were intentionally designed to be adaptive, COVID-19 has been just another contingency to factor into an already chaotic world. But what about those programs that were not specifically designed with flexible and adaptive approaches in mind?

There is growing recognition among donors, development practitioners, and to some extent partner governments that a fixed blueprint is too rigid for the rapidly changing environments we work in. Adaptive programs deliberately take a trial-and-error approach to address uncertainty and complexity. They aim to resist the very tempting urge to export models from elsewhere and employ quick fixes at the expense of longer-term solutions.

The Cardno-implemented and Australian Government funded ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking program was not intentionally designed to refashion itself in response to major shocks like COVID-19. Building on 15 years of Australian support to ASEAN law and justice institutions to improve responses to trafficking in Southeast Asia – the program is in no way a Greenfields or experimental investment. The program’s predecessors achieved considerable results in supporting and building capacity through training, professional development and knowledge exchange. However, to make the substantial jump from building skills and knowledge to demonstrating behavior-change and improved organisational performance, as envisaged in ASEAN-ACT’s design, we are challenged to face the complexity of institutional reform head-on.

It goes without saying that law and justice reform is inherently complex and involves uprooting entrenched power structures and normative behaviors, particularly in relation to gender and social inclusion. However, what we are now just starting to come to terms with through ASEAN-ACT is the extent to which implementing a rights-based approach and tackling the more complex set of reforms outlined in the program’s design requires us to understand and engage with a much broader range of actors beyond the justice sector. We need to use our influence not merely to fill knowledge gaps but to also build a knowledge base for inclusive, evidence-based reform.     

Add to this already complex operating environment a global pandemic and you have a complete recipe for chaos. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities and created new ones – with oft-marginalised groups such as women and children, migrant workers and those working in the informal sector in Southeast Asia particularly vulnerable to human trafficking. The crime itself has also become more complex, with unscrupulous traffickers increasingly turning to online recruitment methods and finding creative ways to evade border closures. Law enforcers are struggling to keep up and are under increasing pressure to ‘do more with less’ as budgets and resources are diverted away from counter trafficking efforts and towards the public health emergency.    

All this to say, Australia’s investment in counter trafficking in Southeast Asia has never been more relevant, but the way that we implement our program to achieve change has been the subject of a serious re-think. Thanks to a strategic and flexible donor, ASEAN-ACT has adapted in the following ways:

Accelerated tech modalities

With regional and multi-country programming across six Southeast Asian countries, the program already had established apps and systems that streamlined communication and promoted collaboration across borders and time zones. While our team was used to working with technology prior to the pandemic, our law and justice counterparts were not.

With the onset of the pandemic and the move to working from home arrangements for most, we swiftly reached out to our counterparts to reaffirm our commitment to them and offered remote training and engagement activities to support the transition. The tech uptake of some in the region was faster than others, but with a modest amount of assistance all our target countries are now participating in online and hybrid (face-to-face and online) program events. 

Our tech-savviness went up a ‘megabyte’ with the development of an online portal for partners to access resources, an interactive policy paper on COVID-19 and vulnerabilities in trafficking, and a webinar series on adapting justice responses

Beyond the ‘usual suspects’

Learnings from Australia’s previous investment in counter-trafficking and our political economy analysis suggest that improving counter trafficking responses requires building coalitions beyond the justice system (police, prosecutors, courts). These learnings suggest involving social, labour and immigration ministries and extending to civil society and the private sector. Having budget and resource flexibility allowed us to divert funds away from activities that had to be postponed (due to COVID-19) to a new grants program involving civil society and non-government organisations from across each of our target countries.

In addressing some of the more sensitive issues in countering human trafficking – such as victim stereotyping, punishment of victims for crimes they committed as a result of being trafficked, and appropriate shelter for diversity groups including LGBTIQ+ victims – ASEAN-ACT needs to partner with civil society actors who are directly supporting victims and have invaluable knowledge from the frontline. To broaden our network, we require nuanced and regular assessment of the political economy, which we now do every six months as part of our review and reflection process.

Decentralised decision-making

Re-structuring our team before the pandemic was a game-changer. We devolved an appropriate level of program and financial decision-making to country managers – those at the coalface and who require the ability to respond to requests from government and to seize opportunities as they arise. We have also implemented a robust reflection and work planning process that involves our regional and national government counterparts and ensures a high level of ownership over ASEAN-ACT’s projects and activities.

Increased accountability

A common misconception about adaptive management is that it’s a tradeoff between agility and accountability. In fact, the opposite is true – a program that is regularly changing course, devolving decisions within the team and expanding and contracting its budget and resources needs a stronger performance and quality system and seamless operations.

We have a well-resourced monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) unit supporting our country teams to make MEL ‘everyone’s business’ and engage in a process of structured learning with regular progress meetings, reviews and reflection sessions. We ensure stakeholders are provided with the information required to make informed and strategic decisions. We produce a monthly dashboard, six-monthly and annual progress reporting, and regular informal communications via WhatsApp. By reframing the accountability approach we are ensuring that the right level of data analysis is collected and shared to inform learning and adaptation. 

Protected reflection, learning and planning time

There’s no getting away with it – it’s hard, it’s time-consuming, but regular and structured reflection helps us to avoid path dependency and blindly programming on while the context is continuously changing around us. Whole-of-portfolio reviews, which bring our country, regional and technical teams together, have helped us unpack changes in the political economy, assess the alignment of our projects and activities with our strategic intent and the priorities of our partners, and ensure we are making meaningful progress towards our GESI (gender equality and social inclusion) and victim rights objectives.

These sessions have started to create a culture of contestability within our team −encouraging staff to reflect on and learn from failure and informing our DAKI (drop, add, keep improve) process for each and every project and activity. Our reflection sessions take place against the backdrop of a robust MEL system which generates output and outcome-level data for decision-making. Our work planning processes are simple but extremely thorough allowing for consultation with partners, moderation between country teams and our technical experts, and presentation to ASEAN, partner governments and our donor.

Arguably the most important aspect of a review and reflection process is documentation. It’s not just a talkfest; we have developed a strong discipline of documenting key discussion points and all course corrections. This documentation is a gold nugget for someone five years from now who will be able to see why we turned left and not right to solve a particular development problem. Adaptive management is not spontaneous, it is structured, and iterative decision-making underpinned by strong record-keeping.

So that might all sound like hard work for a program that was designed to follow a linear theory of change, but two years into a 10-year program, and 18 months into a global pandemic we have set ourselves up to deal not only with the impact of COVID but with any contingency that comes our way.

There is plenty of literature out there on adaptive management (google, stumble or dive into Devpolicy) – we have picked and chosen aspects of the approach suitable for our context and program.

ASEAN-ACT will never be the kind of program that employs a ‘venture capitalist’ approach, changes program outcomes with the seasons or has a high appetite for risk. But even when working with one of the most conversative sectors, where change is incremental and not guaranteed, elements of adaptive management are needed to challenge and eventually change institutions, behaviours and norms.

We did not predict in 2015 that our counter trafficking program would be delivering online learning courses, supporting e-courts or hosting online learning events for hundreds of allies. And it may still be difficult to prophesise where we see ourselves in five years’ time, but at least now we are armed with a set of approaches and tools to ensure we can adapt rather than react to whatever the future holds.


The ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking program is supported by the Australian Government and implemented by Cardno.

visit aseanact.org to learn more

For further information contact:

Lucia Pietropaoli
Team Leader, ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking Program
Email: Lucia.Pietropaoli@aseanact.org