Adapting According to Plan: Early action and adaptive drought response in Kenya (April 2019)


Alice Obrecht

Executive Summary

Early action in crises caused by drought is aimed at ‘recognizing and managing the risk of drought, rather than waiting for it to affect vulnerable communities’ (IFRC, 2014: 1). Doing this effectively ‘implies substantive change across the system’ (ibid.), including the need for greater flexibility among state, humanitarian and development actors, to respond to fluctuations in risk and vulnerability.

This study looks at the relationship between organisational adaptiveness and the ability of humanitarian and state actors to respond effectively to slow-onset cyclical disasters. We use the term adaptiveness or adaptive capacities broadly to mean: The ability of an organisation to adjust and respond effectively to dynamics and uncertainty.

The study focuses on the early action undertaken in response to drought conditions in Kenya from July 2016 to July 2017. It finds that:

There are different types of adaptiveness relevant to drought-related crises, but current approaches emphasise only one of these: preparedness. Approaches to flexibility and adaptiveness are shaped by actors’ confidence in the predictability of conditions on the ground and in the reliability of programme effectiveness.

When confidence is high, adaptiveness is approached as primarily a challenge of planning: identifying likely scenarios, planning interventions for these, and pre-positioning or pre-arranging resources. With respect to the response to drought in Kenya, confidence in the predictability and reliability of programme effectiveness is fairly high, and therefore the main approach to strengthening flexibility is through preparedness and contingency planning.

However, in the early response to the drought in 2016, contingency plans were not fully implemented quickly enough. Some of this was due to continuing challenges in funding early action and to bureaucratic obstacles in activating ‘crisis modifiers’ in development programmes. Experiences on the ground suggest, however, that contingency plans were not sufficiently detailed to implement quickly, and time was spent on developing and targeting these after the contingency plans had been activated. Some view this as a weakness in the contingency plans that could be corrected with more detailed planning. In support of this view, the positive performance of the IMAM Surge model (Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition), a capacity-preparedness model for the nutrition sector in several arid and semi-arid (ASAL) counties, demonstrated the strengths of detailed contingency planning. The IMAM Surge model could be used for other sectors as a way to make swifter adaptations to services and capacity in response to spikes in demand.

Others, however, questioned the ability to fully predict how drought conditions will affect different population groups in any specific crisis, and felt that over-specifying contingency plans could lead to unhelpful rigidity.

A different approach to adaptiveness that emphasises an experimental and iterative approach to programming, with regular reviews that inform adaptations to programming and/or location, could be relevant to early action but was not observed as an intentional approach taken by any actor in this study.

Many see preparedness and contingency planning as key to adapting as conditions change in a drought, but findings suggest that preparedness could also be supported with adaptive programming approaches that trial different activities, monitor their effectiveness, and then stop or scale these depending on emerging outcomes and changing circumstances.

Monitoring and coordination might support a more agile response if they focus on outcomes rather than inputs or activities. Early-warning monitoring and government-led coordination structures appear to have improved greatly since the response to the drought in 2011, and were viewed as contributing to greater effectiveness and timeliness. There was, however, little evidence of continuous monitoring of programme effectiveness, particularly in terms of outcomes, and therefore little evidence of using monitoring data to improve or adjust programmes throughout implementation. The way in which early-warning data is collected by the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), e.g. data on nutritional status, makes it difficult to draw any conclusions on whether improvements in nutritional status are due to effective programmes or to other factors. Similarly, government-led coordination is often focused on achieving coverage of activities or inputs rather than outcomes, meaning that communities in greater need may not receive further assistance if they have been ‘reached’ by a non-government organisation (NGO), even if this support was insufficient to address their priority needs, a situation witnessed in the field visit undertaken for this study in Marsabit county. The focus on coordinating activities instead of monitoring outcomes may be a result of what was described by several key informants as a supplydriven approach in which international actors offer what they can provide, rather than basing programme plans on a prioritisation of needs coordinated by the NDMA.

Decentralised decision-making is critical for agility. Agility and flexibility are needed to support timely shifts to early action, response and recovery. For this, actors on the ground need to be able to operate with minimal delays caused by bureaucratic approval processes. Decentralised decision-making, as modelled by the Kenyan government’s devolution process, is a critical component to adaptiveness because it removes a main source of bureaucratic delays and makes it likelier that decisions to change or implement programming are informed by a strong and updated awareness of the response context. This study finds that the Kenyan early-warning system might benefit from devolving even further to the sub-county level, to enable more targeted responses to areas that can vary widely in nutritional status or crisis level. It also finds that a lack of decentralised decision-making by international agencies and donors was a main constraint on the timeliness of the response to the Kenyan drought and to the ability of international agencies to shift their programmes appropriately in response to changes on the ground.