Navigating Uncertainty: My journey with adaptive management in Somalia

UNDP Somalia
6 min readApr 1, 2024

By Golda Keng

The Covid-19 global health pandemic impacted our human experience in notable ways, including forcing even the most complex systems and organizations to reflect on their capacities to cope with uncertainty. Across disciplines and spaces, we all acknowledged that working with and through uncertainty is no longer a suggestion, but an imperative. Within the world of development programming, the pandemic highlighted what we have always known — that the landscape of our work is not only defined by uncertainty — from political, environmental, economic or socio-cultural unpredictable shifts — but also that conventional cause-effect management approaches are inadequate to ensure intended development results.

Somalia’s country narrative is one of resilience against the backdrop of adversity. It is a context where uncertainty is probably the only constant, and being capable of quickly pivoting activities, plans and modalities of implementation in an innovative way, becomes acutely important. In 2022, UNDP Somalia joined a few pilot country offices where the Crisis Bureau’s Adaptive Management Initiative (AMI) was assigned to co-design an emerging practice with selected country offices, learning from our peers in the development space. This decision to embrace the approach in Somalia wasn’t arbitrary; it stemmed from a recommendation in the 2022 Portfolio Review that traditional methods couldn’t keep pace with the evolving context, thus adaptive management emerged as a suitable management framework as it is rooted in constant analysis, experimentation, continuous learning, and adaptation.

From recommendation to action

Working virtually within the AMI team to explore and introduce a management paradigm that could navigate uncertainty with agility and foresight, I was embedded into the Somalia office as the Adaptive Management Coordinator in early 2023, part of a drought response team when the country was declared a level-III emergency. My role was to advise and support Senior Management to find entry points to introduce the agile and anticipatory management approach.

Upon arrival, I met a country office primed and open to explore the theory and practice, with Senior management providing strong leadership and messaging to staff. We embarked on a series of assessments and awareness sessions involving all programmes and operations teams, and more in-depth engagements with portfolio and project managers to integrate the principles and practices of AM into our work. Similarly, standard AM Talking Points was prepared for senior managements’ messaging with sister agencies, national and development partners, to demonstrate our commitment to respond to the Portfolio Review recommendations, to engineer a new way of working that explicitly learned from the context and adjusted rapidly.

Golda Keng (right) presenting AM model

From a systems perspective, engaging closely with the Accelerator Lab and the Programme Oversight and Quality Assurance team, we embarked on revising relevant SOPs and M&E ToRs, to include aspects of internal collaboration and learning. New programme documents were a prime entry point for agility, where working with Portfolio and Project managers, we reframed over ambitious theories of change and results measurement, embedding regular context scanning, learning and adapting into implementation, risk matrices and governance arrangement, to anticipate, sense and pivot more regularly. This has resulted, among other things, in all new generation joint projects approved in 2023 now featuring context-responsive oversight mechanisms composed of UNDP, donors, national counterpart, and implementing partners meeting at least two-four times a year, instead of annually, to allow projects to rapidly adjust or respond to emerging changes.

Adaptive management strongly advocates for collaborative learning, scaling activities at the right levels and increasing inclusivity and local knowledge.

To forge more cross-portfolio collaboration and synergies between diverse portfolio teams, and to more intentionally seek local perspectives, we set up an integrated taskforce of field and Mogadishu staff in the Governance Conflict Prevention and Resilience (GCPR) area-based project in the SWS to enforce intra-office coordination and learning. Similarly, through a series of discussions and open houses and listening more to local perspectives, as part of the Surge team, we supported the introduction of new programming areas, from stabilization and early recovery, to durable solutions through an integrated set of interventions that respond to critical needs of Somalia. This approach has not only improved programmatic cohesion and a sense of shared understanding among teams, but has been greatly appreciated by our Somali counterparts, evidenced in the request from the President of Hirshebelle State’s visit to UNDP this year to solicit a similar integrated package of actions in Hirshebelle.

Graphics Credit: Adaptive Management Initiative (AMI)

Part of adaptive management efforts included advocating for enhanced engagement with partners at Federal Member State and municipality levels, in a holistic and integrated manner. With strong advocacy from the Senior Crisis coordinator and the Portfolio Manager of the Rule of Law and Security portfolio, UNDP for the first time in South West State, not only rolled out an integrated cross-portfolio area-based stabilization and early recovery programme, but was able to engage, as whole of UNDP portfolios with the whole government in the State, through the Technical Committee meeting to review all efforts by UNDP in the State. UNDP is currently scaling the area-based programming to Puntland and Somaliland, leveraging local staff based in our area offices, under the guidance of area-office heads.

Graphics Credit: Adaptive Management Initiative (AMI)

Similarly, working closely with the Senior Crisis coordinator, we hired national area coordinators, who leverage the humanitarian-development-peacebuilding (HDP) coordination mechanisms, we’ve been able to inform the programming through insights from the field, and make significant strides towards improved coordination with humanitarian partners as UNDP is now a member of local humanitarian coordination mechanisms in South West, Jubaland, Hirshebelle and Galmudug states.

What Lies Ahead: Navigating Opportunity

Change, however small, doesn’t always come without its challenges. Engineering collaboration, flexibility and agility into a traditionally siloed culture is not without hiccups, at best. In twelve months of introducing the approach, the few tangible results affirm our conviction of the approach to drive meaningful change. A critical learning in this journey is acknowledging the importance of taking small steps, pausing to sense, reflect and re-engineer other actions, as every endeavor has brought us closer to a shared vision for our compounding impact. The context of Somalia going into 2024 is full of opportunities amid protracted fragility. Not only must we continue to remain context-responsive, we must also bring our local and international partners to embrace the principles of adaptive management.

A year on, my experience shows that it’s possible to transform systems from the bottom up. Working with Somalia’s complexity, adaptive management isn’t just a strategy — it is a compass, guiding us ahead in a future defined by uncertainty. As we continue to chart our course forward, we keep embracing the learning journey, knowing that in the face of uncertainty and adversity, our greatest strength lies not in assumptions of cause-effect knowledge, but in our ability to learn, pivot, and re-calibrate.

Ms. Keng is the Adaptive Management Coordinator at UNDP Somalia. Read more about UNDP Somalia at:



UNDP Somalia

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) works to achieve the eradication of poverty and the reduction of inequalities and exclusion.