Centralisation and decentralisation in development cooperation – headquarters

Having worked both in the field and at headquarters, I know the challenges and wishes of both. It is very difficult for international development organisations to find the right balance between sufficient headquarters control and a strong local presence in the beneficiary countries. Let’s look at the advantages and challenges on each side and analyse the options.

This blog entry deals with centralisation – i.e., the role of Headquarters.

A well-functioning Headquarters provides:

  • vision and overall strategy,
  • leadership and management directions,
  • central processes,
  • a good database,
  • access to worldwide expertise,
  • impartial monitoring and evaluation,
  • professional, expert (technical) feedback on new concepts and ideas, as well as project/programme proposals
  • technical backstopping of international personnel; general suspension of local personnel
  • assistance with administrative, legal and other issues
  • escalation and conflict resolution possibilities for local problems; and
  • what could generally be labelled “guidance and support”.

In the ideal situation, Headquarters also provides field offices with synergies with other countries, programmes and projects, inputs obtained from other useful experiences, innovations and new concepts for development cooperation, and a useful reality check concerning local events, conditions, staffing issues, project problems and developments.

To sum up, the ideal role of Headquarters is to guide and support and provide a broader and deeper picture. And when this occurs, there is a true value added.

All too often a second face of Headquarters intervention is seen at the field level:

  • constant interference in every aspect of work
  • limiting creativity
  • too many rules, regulations, limitations
  • too many requests for reports that no one reads
  • distraction from the main focus of work
  • insufficient understanding of the local situation and requirements
  • unrealistic expectations
  • bureaucracy preventing efficient operations.

This latter list relates not to the role but to the way it is applied. Many of these problems can be clarified by agreeing on the division or responsibility. Then very clear processes for the interaction between Headquarters and the field need to be established and systematically applied. This exercise implies a give and take and genuine distribution of power, but it is worthwhile carrying out, as it resolves much conflict potential and provides incentives for good performance, at both field and central levels.

We need to strike the right balance between: –  the positive and control roles of Headquarters –  and the individual freedom/responsibility of a field office and its obligations.

The next entry will consider the decentralisation aspect – the role of the field office. Check in again in a couple of days!!

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