Anyone who has been involved in development can rattle off a list of failed projects or initiatives which not only didn’t meet the needs they were intended to address but actually had seriously damaging unintended consequences. While a few mistakes are inevitable and one should look at the whole picture, it is important to examine the decision-making incentives of donor organisations, which in my view reward sometimes irresponsible development decisions.
How does this happen?
Most organisations function with a planning envelope for a particular country over a certain period, usually two to five years. It is the responsibility of the country officer or department to programme and spend this money wisely. Performance is then usually assessed on the flow of the funds awarded, not necessarily on a potentially costly evaluation of the quality of the project or programme portfolio. And certainly not on the impacts, several years later, of the development work carried out. So there is a strong incentive to conceive and implement projects or other development activities, regardless of the conditions in which this assistance operates or political or other hurdles.
Taking things to the extreme, this would mean attributing personal responsibility: if development agency officers knew that they would be held accountable for seriously damaging decisions and/or approving projects/programmes that they knew from the beginning were flawed they might be more careful. Yes, this could slow the approval of some projects, but it might well help avoid some of the large catastrophes of the past few decades.
Is it feasible? Professional consequences for such officers would mean downgrading some very senior officers of development agencies and it might be difficult to attribute individual responsibility, when some of the biggest problems only show up years after the fact and many decisions are approved by committees.
But what about the other side? Often, if someone has refused to approve spending they may find their career blocked or at least slowed. Perhaps it is possible to reward caution by realistically assessing the reasons for refusal and then promoting people who had the strength and wisdom to block poor choices or close bad projects even in the face of political opposition. That might be the place to start.