Too much money is chasing too few really good development projects – Part 2: Conception and implementation challenges

 One issue in the quality of projects is surely the real effect or impact we wish to obtain in the beneficiary countries. This has to do with concrete improvements in the living conditions of the populations in the areas addressed by development cooperation. We are all familiar with horror stories of some of the worst “projects-gone-wrong”. Almost more ominous is the enormous volume of projects whose results are invisible a short time after “completion”.  A recent blog by Bartholomäus Grill highlights this issue.

There are some projects that really do have a positive impact on the lives of their beneficiaries. What makes the difference between a successful project and a moderate or complete failure? Two aspects are really critical here:

  1. The project conception: meeting a true need that cannot be met through other means and setting the right incentives throughout; and
  2. the individual(s) who carry out the project.

It is true that sometimes in spite of pretty dreadful conception a meaningful contribution can be made because the people carrying out the project know what they need to do. It is also true that a project can have some success despite not having the ideal staffing. However, these cases are the exception to the rule.

Concerning the first point above, projects generally fail because:

  • the idea is not on target or doesn’t respond to a real need,
  • the incentives have not been well thought through,
  • the approach doesn’t adequately reflect local requirements, the means are not appropriate to the aims, etc.

And concerning the second, it can safely be said that inappropriate staffing, insufficient social and/or management skills and serious errors of judgement or in technical areas can ruin the best conceived project.

But in spite of huge sums being spent on project conception, few projects are really well conceived and fewer still are successfully carried out by people capable of making a success out of them. The fact that in 2003 the DAC (Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) set up an Aid Effectiveness Department shows that the donors themselves are increasingly aware of the shortcomings of international development support. It is very positive and necessary that donors are beginning to pay more serious attention to this issue.

Project conception:  Adding layers of bureaucracy will not improve the basic project conception, which should at a minimum:

  • reflect a real familiarity with the current situation and needs in the country;
  • be completely independent of political or budgetary pressures (here I am not talking about limitless budgets but more about doing away with end-of-year or end-of budgetary-period pressures to spend money or lose it);
  • explain how political pressures will be neutralized or removed;
  • explain why the project merits financing and why the need cannot be met in any other way;
  • set very specific indicators for success, including for the local contribution;
  • undergo a reality check by decision-makers capable of stopping the financing even at a later stage should it be seen that all pre-conditions are not met.

Concerning the implementation, the efforts of some donors to move toward stronger documentation of the experience claimed in a CV is necessary to contain the cheating which takes place. But this is not sufficient to ensure competence. The tentative efforts to create data bases of unacceptable “experts”, despite risks of errors and very valid and important privacy concerns, go further in the right direction. Eventually it may make sense to establish a transparent international system tying individuals to performance claims and references, with a possibility of appeal.

The next few blogs will examine the situation from another perspective: how to improve the constituency in the donor countries for development cooperation and perhaps relieve some of the budgetary pressures.

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