Starting off as a research initiative, FBA’s work on exploring linkages between the rule of law and public administration in peacebuilding and development gradually scaled up to one of the largest projects that the agency is implementing bilaterally, the project on local self-government and rule of law in Ukraine. Within the span of several years it has, quite entrepreneurially, engaged with a variety of actors that have jointly been working on promoting rights’ based serviced delivery in Ukraine, among others through assessments, surveys, problem identification, peer to peer learning, trainings and action plans to enable finding solutions to identified challenges. Yet even with consistent attempts to have a more flexible and experiential approach to project implementation, one doesn’t stop wondering whether enough is being done to ensure maximum impact.

Despite the endless amount of resources and efforts to support government reforms in developing countries, few initiatives tend to achieve real impact. This has led to new research and communities of practice to challenge traditional approaches and encourage Doing Development Differently. One strand of thinking has also been the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach, arguing that meaningful interventions in fragile settings and developing countries have four core elements in common: a) solving specific problems in localized contexts b) by operating in authorizing environments c) that allow for iteration and continuous experiential learning d) all by engaging with a multitude of actors contributing to politically viable and realistic reforms.

To look further into what stands behind these elements, several of FBA colleagues recently took part in the PDIA course taught by the Building State Capability team at Harvard. Beyond the intuitively familiar concepts on how to create spaces for change, deconstruct problems or avoid solution-driven programming, the course is based on a multitude of evidence-based examples, reflections and tools that would require substantial deliberate practice should one decide to test the approach. Perhaps subjectively, but the following highlights have been quite revealing.

Distinguishing reality from fiction. The need or the ability for someone external to navigate parallel worlds of administrative facts in contexts where policies are created purely for compliance can be counter-intuitive at least. Failure to assess actors’ motivation behind reforms or the temptation to support interventions prioritizing form over function might lead to cases of isomorphism or hardly justified emphasis on technical training for example.

Prematurely pushing for ambitious reforms. Easily one of the favorite learning points even from the ongoing project in Ukraine, where overly-comprehensive action plans geared towards rule of law reform in service delivery had to be significantly adapted to the ambitions and resources available at the local level. In the language of PDIA, this is called “premature load bearing”, calling for more awareness of the temptation to perfection.

Individual capacity can fix organizational capability. This is a common but also very risky assumption, and it often serves as the starting point for proposing training programmes, courses or other forms of capacity development. Supporting capacity building initiatives for individuals can be one entry point, but should certainly not be the only one and it also requires that we become more aware of the environment that people are limited by, despite increase in knowledge and expertise. This is also currently being tested in Ukraine, whereby trainings are meant to complement actions taken by both central and local authorities towards more rights’ based service delivery.

Working with ‘’good problems’’. This is a simple but often overlooked principle: change happens when people really care about a problem. This has been known in regulatory theory for some time where working “with the grain” is a standard practice for affecting change. The PDIA proposal here is to identify and work with problems that cannot be ignored by local agents, that can practically be broken down (for example by using the Ishikawa diagram/aka fishbone), and that can in turn allow for actionable responses.

Making space for iterative and experiential learning. This reiterates that there is no need to follow logframes to the letter. It does not necessarily make the need for a theory of change redundant however. The advisable way is to rather work with something coined as searchframes that factor in space for learning from each of the iterations or steps made.

Rethinking (multi-agent) leadership. This implies that change rarely happens thanks to individual actions solely. Andrews’ work for example suggests that ’’It is disempowering to see leadership as something that demands waiting for special individuals to do special things. It is empowering to see leadership more empirically as something that emerges in certain contexts and manifests in multi-agent groups’’. Perhaps a little disconcerting for someone with a background from a post-soviet country, but a really valuable revelation in any case.

With many other additional elements, PDIA makes a compelling case. Looking more into what the evidence shows and being more aware of the telltale signs of meaningful interventions could be the first step perhaps. Drawing on its expertise and commitment to test what really works in complex environments, FBA is furthermore uniquely placed to test some of these approaches and principles in practice.