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The many places a good development project idea can go astray – (1)

Let me say from the start: this blog series is not meant to offer a complete list of the challenges to bringing a good project idea to fruition, as that would probably take an encyclopaedia and be rather boring to boot. It is intended to provoke some thought on how improvements could be made.

Let’s look at the overall process of developing an idea into a project for development cooperation (in the private sector I admit it works differently):

  • 1) In the ideal case, a project idea derives from an assessment of a need in a particular sector, country, region, etc.
  • 2) This idea wends its way through the ranks of the donor organisation, agency, ministry, to gain acceptance.
  • 3) A preparation mission (feasibility study, preparation of TOR, etc.) takes place, mostly financed by the donor.
  • 4) A tender is held (or the organisation decides to implement the project itself) and the expertise for project execution is selected.
  • 5) The team arrives or is put in place and the project begins.

The next few entries will deal with the individual steps in the process, describing the challenges, and then make some recommendations for improvements.

Project idea

Here, much depends on who has had the idea, how it was generated, who made the assessment, etc. Mostly, political or other considerations strongly influence which ideas are selected, needs considered or regions addressed. In my experience, both donors and recipient countries inject such political aspects into the making of a project, raising the potential for significant improvement – and serious disadvantages. How often do the scope, the reach, the intended beneficiary(ies), the target region(s) etc., get diluted or even modified to fit certain political or power considerations? This may simply be a part of the necessary internal process but all too often when a project is finally approved it is far removed from the original need it was intended to address.

I have seen projects moved from the original region because the Ministry has a stronger political interest or constituency in another region; project ideas bent to fit a particular political trend or aim; projects conceived for one beneficiary group transferred to another (with different needs) because a competing donor is involved in the area or the field and coordination is not possible (I will speak about aid coordination in another blog!). The real problem is that an original idea aimed at solving a particular set of problems is diverted and ends up not addressing the problems effectively.

What can be done about it?

Insert a “reality check” into the pre-approval discussion, involving the initiator(s) of the project idea: How far removed is the project from its original idea? Are the specific identified needs still in clear focus? To what extent have political processes (on the side of either the recipient or the donor country) diverted the project from its original purpose? Is the current sponsor of the idea neutral and well-positioned to support it throughout the approval process?

It would probably be a good idea to perform a regular reality check throughout the process of taking a project idea to implementation. And such a reality check can only be effective if – in the case of negative responses – consequences are drawn and the preparatory work stopped until the situation is corrected. This has of course political implications – but it would make the development of good project ideas much stronger.

Coming up next time: Approval by the donor and project preparation – the pitfalls.

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