The “Project Partner Dilemma”

Why do so many development cooperation projects run after their partners?

Most projects operate on the premise that there is a project partner (often one of the “beneficiaries”) on the recipient side, who is fully committed to the project. He shares a common understanding of the overriding and the specific project goals and will work together with the project team to achieve these goals. The fallacy in this premise is that the level of commitment of the project partner – and the willingness to commit staff, time and resources to the project – is all too often not strong enough.

The reasons for this vary from project to project, but mostly begin with one or more of the following:

  • Conflicting demands (too many responsibilities for too few staff)

  • Hierarchy, inability (or lack of will) to delegate

  • Insufficient interest in a foreign activity which doesn’t completely reflect local priorities

  • Political infighting of one sort or another

  • Expectations or wishes which the executing agency or company can or will not fulfil.

The result is that millions of Euros are invested in strengthening partner organisations to increase their absorptive capacity. And many compromises must be made along the way (hiring the cousin, financing certain inputs from the partner organisation, carrying out work that technically should be the responsibility of the partner, etc.).

It can be argued that the job of technical cooperation is to build up the capacities in the partners. I beg to differ: experience has demonstrated that the capacity of the partner expands in direct correlation to the vested interest in the project’s goals and work, and not in relation to the money or “institution building” showered upon it.

The real issue here is that of demand: when the demand is strong enough, and when the project is responding to a real need felt locally, the partner will be motivated enough.

Some of the criteria for judging the usefulness of a particular project should include:

  • How the demand was locally manifested

  • Whether the assistance to the partner organisation represents a temporally limited, highly specific support measure, provided to an otherwise financially viable organisation, which would also carry on in the absence of such support

  • Alternative sources of income of the project partner and any harmful effects the project can have on competition

  • Current and future staffing of the project partner, independent of a project

  • Real means that the project partner plans to make available to the project (personnel, offices, equipment, etc.)

  • Any history of the project partner in other projects (Does it go from project to project and derive its financing through external support? How was the performance in previous projects? What other activities and projects does it have running?)

  • Consistency of the project objectives with the formal and unstated objectives and goals of the partner organisation.

These are very general selection criteria and would need to be adapted to every situation, but should lay the foundation for a more rigorous selection of partners.

And when this is not the case, the project should in my view be reoriented or closed.

2 Comments to “The “Project Partner Dilemma””

  1. Robert Kahn says:

    This message resonates with my experience in emerging markets. Buy-in from executive management, where they have actual skin in the game, is essential to running a successful technical assistance project.

    Your voice is a welcome addition to the blogosphere, and I look forward to reading your future posting.

  2. Reavis Hilz-Ward says:

    Hello Robert,

    Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right. And I believe management can only be convinced and thus fully committed to a project when (as you say) they have “actual skin in the game”, i.e., have a stake in the outcome. But when they are, great results can be achieved. This is why it is so important to ensure their commitment from the beginning.

Leave a Reply