Using programme and project management systems in development aid

Please note this post talks about an aspect closely related to the work I do on a daily basis. The ideas below are my personal opinion on a specific opportunity in the context of development aid in general, and do not specifically relate to any organisation I am associated with or working for. These ideas are a reflection on what I see as a very important opportunity in our field of work, coming from a programme and project management background.

In a reality of reducing development aid budgets, proper due diligence becomes even more of a necessity than it was before

Western governmental aid budgets are becoming more and more tight. Traditional bilateral development aid is slowly but surely being replaced by multilateral and privately sourced aid. A well known example is the “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” that has means which dwarfen the development aid means of many a nation. In this changing reality, development aid agencies are transitioning from a state of monopoly to a state of competition among peers. While they are – often even by law – the sole responsible for delivering bilateral aid, they are in sometimes dire competition for access to multilateral and privately sourced aid. As this aid often goes to the “best” party, for a certain set of conditions underlying best, they compete to be the best in certain sectors and/or geographical areas, or a combination thereof.

In development aid context, “best” has most often been defined as most competent. And development aid competency is a function of the expert profiles you can attract as development agency. Certain agencies have a tradition of a presence and hence a competency in certain geographical areas and certain sectors. But now more and more, the reign of the sole, Western, embedded expert appears to be over. Not because the perceived value of the expert has gone down, but because the need for “business” management in projects is growing. Especially private sector funds, as part of foundations or as part of large Corporate Social Responsibility programs of multinationals, asks for timely, complete and accurate due diligence, and will hold the incumbent “manager” responsible, whether or not he feels responsible.

In other words, the accountability requirements regarding development aid have significantly increased in the past years. Is the development community ready, willing and able to answer this call?

Managers and experts on a collision course?

Even since before the early 1960’s we have become aware that the ultimate goal of development aid, realizing impacts, is notoriously difficult to measure. After all, quite often a development project is only one piece of a larger puzzle that eventually will lead to a certain aimed for impact on the beneficiaries. Approaches such as the logical framework have allowed us to link effort (input) with outputs, outcomes and impacts. Practitioners however are very conscious that this effort at quantification has its inherent limitations. New initiatives at the fringes of the logical framework, such as M&E (measurement and evaluation) or the more aggressive Value for Money initiatives try to embed a more quantitative approach into the traditionally qualitative environment that development aid is. We are just barely starting to understand how such initiatives and measurements can contribute to the ultimate goal of development projects, which is creating a better situation for the beneficiaries than the initial baseline.

I am convinced development aid expertise and management need not be on a collision course. Rather, traditional concepts of project and program management can actually aid an expert in both delivering better managed results and have more time to dedicate to the project content. And this is why these experts were engaged to do in the first place.

In essence, if properly applied, rather than making life for a development expert more difficult, project management methods and tools can lighten their administrative burden to the minimum amount required, in effect freeing their hands to work on the content.

Programme and project management at the crossroads of management and expertise

But how can project management contribute to increasing the quality of a typical development project? In order to determine that, we need to first understand what project management brings to the table. After that, we can examine where it can add value in a development project.

Let’s look at Wikipedia’s definition of a project:

A project is a temporary endeavor with a defined beginning and end (usually time-constrained, and often constrained by funding or deliverables), undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives, typically to bring about beneficial change or added value.

Taken this definition, most of what we consider to be (bilateral) development aid are projects. Of course, this does not tell us anything about how you execute a project. This is where project management comes in. Again, according to Wikipedia:

Project management is the discipline of planning, organizing, motivating, and controlling resources to achieve specific goals.

This gives us a bit more information on what we need to focus on when “doing” a project. There are a number of known project management methodologies out there that each have their take on how to “do” a project. While they are not fundamentally different, the language used can become rather technical and hence confusing.

PRINCE2, one of the better known methodologies, uses themes as a description of aspects of a project that need to be taken in account throughout the project. In other words, throughout the different activities, as listed in the definition, the themes provide approaches to answering the key questions which need to be addressed by a project. The PRINCE2 themes, which I merely use as an example, answer the following questions with respect to a project.

  • Key aspects or themes in PRINCE2:
    • ”Why?” do we engage in this project? This question is usually answered in the project brief which we find in pretty much all development projects;
    • ”Who?” will be executing the work? Again, a question that is traditionally answered in the project definition phase of a development project. The advantage of the project management theme is that it continuously questions the relevance of the profiles currently in play;
    • ”What?” will be achieved in the project? While the what is almost always defined in development aid, project management stresses the need for common understanding of the final end state by all parties. It also focuses on how the project manager is to aim for the delivery of those requirements. What is fundamentally about understanding and about attributing responsibilities.
    • ”How?”, “How much?” and “When?” Establishing the what will not amount to much if the concrete way forward is not clear. It’s my experience that apart from a broad budgetary assessment, this phase is often underdeveloped in development projects. This is where project management can really make a difference between a nice concept and a succesful project result. I do need to point out that even if we tend to properly define how and how much, and do a good guess at when, the when factor is a very challenging factor, as most development projects need to deal with important and very influential external factors, such as weather (in agricultural projects) and process aspects, such as appropriate management of public tender procedures in partner countries.
    • ”What if?” things are different than we anticipated them to be? Even if the how is clear, the assumptions underlying the how may not hold. Again, this is especially true in less controlled environments, such as fragile states in which development aid is being delivered. Assessing the risks in a broad, structured and timely manner as they may impact the ultimate objectives of the development project will result in a higher likelihood of projects being delivered in scope, budget and with the required quality.
    • ”What is the impact?” of any changes in underlying assumptions? If risks manifest themselves, they will impact the projects. Within a context of limited available budgets, if we need to resolve issues, other aspects will need to be adapted as well. Assessing the impact, planning for change and appropriately communicating this to the relevant stakeholders, especially the partner, is not only a sign of good project management, but of respect as well.
    • ”Where are we now?”, “Where are we going?” and “Should we carry on?” is all about using hard and soft information to assess the continued relevance of the project. Monitoring and status reporting should not only focus on the ultimate goal to be achieved, but on clearly established milestones across the different project dimensions of scope, budget and quality as well.

An opportunity rather than an issue

Now, rather than falling into a trap of criticism and assessing development projects through a project management lens, let us consider these questions and who would be best placed to answer them. In my mind, this would best be the content expert, especially if he works closely together with his team of local and international collaborators. Hence, even if these questions are often not fully answered in a comprehensive manner at the beginning of a development project, I believe this to be more related to the need of adding on a structured project management methodology to our traditional the logical framework rather than to the lack of competence of the people being put in play.

Integrating traditional programme and project management techniques into frameworks such as the logical framework could actually enhance development projects to become best practices in any project management context, by optimally leveraging what is already present.

In conclusion

The need for a strict but efficient project and programme management framework in development aid grows. The increased accountability requirements of public money well spent is a key driver, but certainly not the only one. Both multilateral and private sector investment in development aid is on the rise, and with these investments comes a significant experience with and expectation of traditional project and programme management.

Rather than seeing this as a threat to the development aid community, I believe good project management can increase the quality and the relevance of the current development projects, especially if integrated with tried and tested concepts we know very well. The chasm that is being perceived by some is not really a chasm at all, but more of a small fissure that can easily be bridged by appropriate training and the right tools put in the right places.

And ultimately, I firmly believe that rather than increasing the administrative burden for an often already overburdened expert, it may actually reduce them, especially if aid agencies and their donors, learn to optimally use the information that is generated in traditional project and programme management systems.