How DFID can better manage complexity in development programming

Briefing papers
April 2019
Samuel Sharp, Craig Valters and Brendan Whitty

The United Kingdom’s (UK) Department for International Development (DFID) is an ambitious government department that is committed to reducing poverty and conflict overseas. Many of the issues on which DFID works are complex; whether focused on climate change, gender equality, health or other priorities, simple solutions rarely exist. And to tackle these complex challenges, DFID staff must interact with unpredictable systems of political, organisational and individual behaviours and incentives. 

This demands sophisticated management and DFID increasingly recognises that complex problems require flexible systems to support testing, learning and adaptation. However, structural questions of management remain. When, how and why should DFID deploy their staff resources? How can DFID design and approve programmes with ambitious goals but realistic management requirements?

This briefing note is the outcome of an ongoing process within DFID to confront these issues and answer the question: how can DFID design and manage programmes to address complex development challenges without creating too much staff workload? 

The briefing suggests that DFID and similar agencies...

  • pay closer attention to delivery options in programme design, making use of existing options where possible and, where not, fostering local organisations through long-term investments
  • encourage programme designers to articulate how ambition matches resources and consider ‘good enough’ design
  • reduce the burden of compliance by cultivating partner autonomy, reassessing results and value-for-money requirements and promoting more flexible contracting and procurement
  • plan and prioritise management resources across a portfolio of programmes to make sure they can be focused in the right areas, where the complexity of the problem requires greater engagement.