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The many places a good development project idea can go astray – (2)

 In the blog on April 25th we looked briefly at the project idea and how it get can distorted and removed from the original intent.

The next step is:Approval by the donor

During this process, the project idea gets examined by various instances. In Germany, it will move from the local office to headquarters, and be analysed there before it moves to the Ministry for Cooperation. After that it often goes back to the country for the bi-annual government consultations, then returns to the responsible executing organisation, to be worked into a full project. During this process, the idea must meet certain specifications (Is the country on the priority list? Does the project fit into the priority area strategy agreed to for cooperation with the country? Is there a strong government sponsor for the idea in the recipient country? What interests are against such an idea? How does it compete with others for the available financing? Etc.). Particularly if the idea does not easily fit within the constraints set by political bodies, it will either be significantly changed in order to do so or put on a wish list for the future (if it is not immediately cancelled). In any event, after completing this process it has generally evolved in a significant way and may well no longer be recognizable in its initial form.

Let me give an example: an opportunity is identified to strengthen an economy by improving its tourism infrastructure. The donor approached is interested, but tourism doesn’t fit within the priority strategy areas for the country which are more focussed on natural resources protection. Instead of finding another donor, the project is re-categorized under “natural resources” and the original idea changed to fit the category. A whole series of problems arises: inappropriate choice of beneficiary, insufficient technical knowledge to frame and prepare the project correctly, inadequate capabilities to backstop and support the project, etc. Waste all around.

So what should be done to avoid such a problem?

Verify from the beginning whether the project really fits within the scope of the donor’s development cooperation or not. If not, and the project idea is nonetheless valid, identify a donor into whose programme it would fit, rather than bending the project to suit other criteria. I know, this means giving up turf, but it can only happen if donors start to do so and trust that others will eventually follow their lead!

Once the donor has “adopted” the project, ensure that appropriate and adequate technical resources are available to make it a success.

Project preparation

Usually by the time the idea has passed the bilateral negotiations it is clear which organisation will be responsible for the project. Generally an expert mission is then fielded to prepare the project. The expert(s) discuss with any local donor representation, with Government officials, various stakeholders encountered along the way and with Headquarters. In this process, political and management considerations from the donor (organisation and ministry) are integrated, which can result in improvements, but can also move the idea further from its initial scope and intended results. Here it must be said that this process is long in all of the donor agencies, with the result that terms of reference (TOR) for a project are often two or more years old by the time they are finally approved and prepared for execution. This means that important developments affecting the idea, the scope, the intended beneficiaries and all other aspects of the project are generally not reflected in the TOR and project description.

One solution to this issue is to critically assess the filters set through the project preparation, to ensure that the end result still reflects the current and foreseeable needs. Another would be to insert a short verification mission prior to a tender, to review the TOR and make any urgent changes. Obviously the best solution would be to improve the process to the extent that TOR are not older than six months by the time the project starts. I have lots of ideas how this could be accomplished. Watch out for upcoming blogs!

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