Maybe we shouldn’t talk about Agile in Aid

by | Jan 9, 2021 | Development, ICT4D |


The Cambridge dictionary defines Agile as:

“able to move your body quickly and easily”

Cambridge Dictionary

Agile development is

“an iterative approach to project management and software development that helps teams deliver value to their customers faster and with fewer headaches. Instead of betting everything on a “big bang” launch, an agile team delivers work in small, but consumable, increments. Requirements, plans, and results are evaluated continuously so teams have a natural mechanism for responding to change quickly.”


Over the past couple of years ‘being agile’ has become buzzwords within many NGOs. Sometimes ‘agile’ is used interchangeably with ‘kaizen’ or continuous improvement. In general, people get excited about the idea. There is that sense of freedom from needing to plan everything out in detail years in advance. And a bit of excitement about the possibility of seeing results or improvements quicker.

And then the project goes for sign off and the questions come. What’s the total budget? And what results do we get for that budget? Where’s the logframe? And so on. Often with a truly agile approach we can set a budget but not results. This is mostly because as the implementation happens in agile decisions are made as we go, not beforehand. We set direction and intention.

The weird thing is that social science, like humanitarian aid or international development should be a perfect fit for an agile approach. We deal with uncertainty and change all the time. And yet, the agile approach struggles to take hold in NGOs. Mostly because for decades our approach has been rigid, project based approaches promising specific exact results for set budgets.

This rigidity is one of the major barriers to project teams being able to listen and act on feedback from those we seek to serve. When our project documentation requirements, including our audit requirements, continue to be strict and rigid, it is difficult to change. Not impossible, just difficult and the incentives to respond to feedback do not exist.

Aid and international development should be the perfect fit for an agile approach. However, we need massive mindset shift away from the rigidity of our internal systems and controls if we are ever to get there.

The choice is up to us.

Photo by Ferenc Horvath


  1. Andrea Spurdle

    I find agile software development gives vastly better value for money for the client. But the client has to trust the developer more at the start than in a traditional rigid model, because you can’t say for sure at the beginning of a project exactly what will be delivered. And the client has to put time in during the project to review and make decisions. Are there parallels in your development context? I think there might be. Funders have to trust you without upfront guarantees. And they need to be prepared to engage with the project, both the aid agency and the ultimate beneficiaries, as the project progresses, so everyone is happy with the project direction. The benefits could be big if you can get people to engage with you on those terms. But you have to earn that trust somehow first.

    • AmosD

      Thanks for sharing your perspective Andrea! I agree there is the opportunity for better value, however we are a long way from achieving this for all kinds of reasons, including your point on trust. It also requires a different way of engaging in project management. The opportunity is there, the choice is up to us if we are willing to take it.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *