Contemplating the Tensions Between Technical and Adaptive Approaches in International Development

I spent a week in the highlands of Guatemala on a mission trip with my church in the summer of 2015. This was my first experience working in the field with a local organization and directly with those it sought to assist. The faith-based organization (FBO) with which our mission team worked assisted residents in several small villages with housing, employment skills, after-school nutrition and tutoring programs. It also provided wellness programs for seniors and support for the denomination’s pastors in the region. My one request before agreeing to participate in the project was that I would do physical work the entire week I would spend there. My goal in doing so was a period during which I would have the satisfaction of experiencing the immediate and tangible results of my efforts. As requested, I spent the majority of my time in the country digging a trench in order to fill it with rocks and concrete as the foundation for a large wall surrounding a school feeding program facility. At the end of each day I could see clearly what I had accomplished, both in terms of the linear feet I had helped dig for the wall, and the blisters on my hands.

The principal FBO with which we worked was also assisting a number of families in the village by constructing homes for them. At a visit to one such building site, I recognized the World Vision logo on a latrine that had recently been installed for the family. I inquired with the organization’s director about his organization’s relationship with World Vision, a large, multi-national FBO, and learned that while they were aware of one another’s efforts, the two institutions did not cooperate formally. It surprised me that two faith-based entities operating in the same small town helping the same family with its housing needs would not have a closer working relationship. More, throughout the week, the head missionary shared examples of the challenges his organization faced in sustaining its work. In addition to the logistical concern of managing multiple projects in the community, finding a steady stream of volunteers and securing funding required significant effort. My experience in Guatemala piqued my interest in understanding better the challenges organizations face while serving their clientele in international development settings. As I contemplated what I observed and experienced, I sensed a tension between the organization’s need to focus on getting things done in the near-term, such as assisting families and securing volunteers, and its companion need to focus on longer-run  change, such as addressing the root causes of the problems it was seeking to ameliorate.

Harvard University professor Ronald Heifetz has written extensively about problem solving. His adaptive leadership framework is anchored in a typology of problems ranging from purely technical concerns for which the challenge and solution are clearly defined, to adaptive scenarios, in which the problem and its resolution are not well defined or known (Heifetz, 1994, p. 75). Adaptive questions require learning, and such work often demands a great deal of time as those undertaking it develop and explore new ways of understanding the challenge(s) at hand, their relationship to it (them) and how its (their) resolution might affect their own epistemic frames. Clearly, addressing such challenges is difficult work.

If we step back to my experience in Guatemala, I requested a technical assignment, and was given one. In order to build a wall, our team needed first to construct a foundation. To do so, we needed to dig to the requisite depth, construct it using appropriate materials and then allow the new structure to cure. The problem and solution were known to at least a share of us charged with fabricating the footing. It is useful to contrast wall-building with addressing the need to secure inter-organizational collaboration within the nongovernmental and international development community. One team of analysts has estimated that more than 10,000 NGOs now provide services in Guatemala-often to clients in the same community- leading to potential stakeholders seeking the same services from multiple providers, duplication of effort and inefficient use of available funding (Green, Green, Scandlyn, & Kestler, 2009). One could argue that education could help beneficiaries understand that seeking the same services multiple times is not effective, that organizations working more closely together could help reach more clients and that resources must be used efficiently and effectively. The issues underpinning this complicated situation could plausibly be defined in a number of different ways, but none of them involve readily known solutions-a classic example of an adaptive problem.

More than 150 years ago, the United States Congress invested boldly in the ability of our states to educate their citizenries, and thereby prepare them more effectively to address challenging issues with passage of the Morrill Act of 1862. That statute established the land-grant university system (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 2012) and its creation “reflected a growing demand for agricultural and technical education in the United States” (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 2012, p. 1). Recognizing that limiting access to research-created knowledge to the academy reduced the scope of who could benefit from that information, the Morrill Act was followed by the Hatch Act of 1887. That statute supported research activities and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created the Cooperative Extension Service (CES), followed some decades later. The CES was established to “disseminate information gleaned from [the] [agricultural] experiment stations’ research” (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 2012, p. 1). The National Research Council has argued that this model of research, education and dissemination has resulted in, “remarkable advances in both farming productivity and agricultural science and technology, which in turn have contributed to the growth of the U.S. economy and the well-being of consumers the world over” (1995, p. v).

The NRC’s observation that land-grant universities have created impacts around the world reflects the global engagement of these institutions. An internet search of the term “global land grant university” returned more than 2.7 million results. Land-grant universities have been engaged internationally for years and this involvement continues today (Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 2018). Cooperative Extension faculty members have the opportunity to participate globally through study tours and information and knowledge exchanges with Extension systems in other countries or, often, as volunteers sharing their expertise while collaborating with FBOs or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of other nations. These opportunities may take the guise of short-term technical visits or multi-year projects or, indeed, occur in a variety of other ways.

Cooperative Extension faculty possess valuable technical expertise to contribute to international development efforts, and likewise, often gain knowledge and insights from working with stakeholders in global contexts (Strong & Harder, 2011). However, those individuals often experience challenges or frustrations when considering the impacts of their work and gauging how their efforts change the perceptions and attitudes of those with whom they interact (Strong & Harder, 2011). One additional tension these faculty members often face is pressure to provide immediate solutions. Certainly, there are instances in development work when a technical change or step is all that is needed. If livestock need to be excluded from a communal water source to keep it from being contaminated, for example, fencing may be an effective solution.

But what of situations that require learning and longer-term shifts, as in values, for example? How do CES faculty work with partners to bring about the understanding needed for change that cannot be accomplished by means of a technical intervention in a short-time frame?  One issue to consider as one reflects on such situations are the motivations of the host country partner. If that entity’s funding requires short-term deliverables, it is likely that Extension faculty (or any external collaborator) will be pressed to provide a short-term technical solution to whatever concern is being addressed. Development organizations generally are under no shortage of pressure to achieve results and often face potentially conflicting motivations, such as securing efficiency and meeting spending targets as they go about their work (Vowles, 2016). And funders, such as USAID, often evaluate projects on the basis of near-term measureable results, even for longer-term initiatives, such as human and institutional capacity building (United States Agency for International Development, 2010). This focus on a relatively linear process with its pretense that issues can be addressed in delimited periods may add to the tensions development organizations experience as they must constantly measure their results in terms of short-run milestones and objectives. This orientation incentivizes an emphasis on technical solutions by volunteers as organizations seek to demonstrate expected results to funders within specific time frames.

In a recent meeting between Virginia Tech agricultural faculty interested in international engagement and an NGO partner for the particular country where the opportunities existed, those professors who participated were asked what motivated them to engage in international work. The answers members of the group provided included a sense of accomplishment, professional challenges, making a difference, opportunities for graduate students and available funding. The NGO representatives attending the gathering, on the other hand, were motivated by a sense of urgency to provide actionable technical expertise in their country aligned with the metrics of the funding agency providing their proposed project budget. This is not to say that partners requesting technical assistance are not often aware of the need for longer-term change. Such organizations are often much closer to the work than their U.S. partners and are just as frequently confronted daily with life at the margins, and it may be tough to think about even the short-term future when confronted with resource-deprived, malnourished, abused or otherwise vulnerable clientele.

Taking the long view in international development is by no means a new idea. And, approaches to achieving sustainable change abound. However, such efforts invariably take longer than would short-term technical approaches. For example, Pascale, Sternin, and Sternin (2010) have argued that the most effective way to address challenging problems is to take the time necessary to gain the trust of local populations in order to understand fully the nature of the problem to be addressed and in doing so, seek out the cases of positive deviance where local knowledge and know how allow for thriving. This approach requires a longer view. Additionally, they argue that such solutions as they may obtain, technical or adaptive, already exist in the community.

The intent of this essay was not to offer a prescribed set of answers to the inherent challenges of mediating the pressure, often politically imposed by funders, for immediate technical actions in environments in which adaptive strategies may offer greater benefits in the long run. Rather, it is my hope that by posing some of these questions, practitioners engaged in international development, whether through Extension or other avenues, can begin to be more self-consciously aware of them and how through their actions they might collaborate with others more effectively to serve those with whom they work.



Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. (2012). The Land-Grant tradition. Washington, DC.

Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. (2018). International development. Retrieved from

Green, T., Green, H., Scandlyn, J., & Kestler, A. (2009). Perceptions of short-term medical volunteer work: a qualitative study in Guatemala. Globalization and health, 5(1), 4.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

National Research Council. (1995). Colleges of agriculture at the land grand universities: A profile. Washington, D.C.

Pascale, R. T., Sternin, J., & Sternin, M. (2010). The power of positive deviance: How unlikely innovators solve the world’s toughest problems (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Strong, R., & Harder, A. (2011). Recommended competencies needed for teaching in international extension settings. Journal of International Agricultural and Extension Education, 18(3), 72-83.

United States Agency for International Development. (2010). Human and institutional capacity development handbook. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

Vowles, P. (2016). Is international development the most challenging leadership context there is? Medium. Retrieved from Medium website:


Ben Grove is a Ph.D. student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His primary research interest is understanding leadership capacity building in nongovernmental organizations. He is an alumnus of the VALOR (Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results) program, a fellowship focused on the Commonwealth’s agricultural industry. Ben previously earned a B.S. in Animal and Poultry Sciences and an M.B.A. from Virginia Tech. He currently serves as the Assistant Director of Global Programs for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech. Ben and his wife Lindsay live in Blacksburg and enjoy exploring the New River Valley and surrounding areas with their three sons, Hudson, Finley, and Wells.

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