What if we scrapped The Project – are there better ways to fund development?

October 29, 2014 28 By Duncan Green

Yesterday I gave some general feedback on last week’s Doing Development Differently conference. Today I want to talk about projects, or rather The Project. Joel Hellman of the World Bank TheProject_Logo_500x281gave the following definition:

What is a project?

–          Time bound (1-5 years)

–          A Legal Agreement

–          A cluster of contracts – employment, implementing partners, consultants, evaluation. All of them work within a set of rules, set both by donors and recipient governments.

–          A predetermined set of results (the focus on these has increased in recent years due to logframe/metrics fetishism – my words, not Joel’s)

–          Post review audit and evaluation of those results

How did this particular construct come to be so all powerful in the aid and development sphere? I remembered this quote from Ros Eyben’s wonderful book, International Aid and the Making of a Better World

‘The project is a device that development agencies use to organise complex reality into a manageable, bounded unit. In 1966, Hirschman referred to them as ‘privileged particles of the development process’. Back then, in addition to providing Third World governments with ‘manpower’ for health, education and other services along with some budget support, international aid provided infrastructure projectised in the same manner as the construction of roads, bridges,etc. back home. In theory, recipient governments presented fully designed projects for funding and the aid agency then appraised their viability and relevance. In practice, aid agencies, equipped with budgets that had to be spent in a timely manner, actively encouraged recipients to think of useful schemes that fitted the project paradigm.

A project was seen as a capital investment, which was then (in principle, often not in practice) maintained by the recipient government. Early projects produced something concrete – such as a power station or hospital – but by the 1970s the United Nations specialised agencies were using the project model for an expanded range of objectives, such as the ILO Youth Training Centres Project that gave me my first job as a development professional. Although by then aid agencies perceived development as more complicated than initially thought and needing more than bridges and roads, the project had become the default aid instrument. It produced the patent absurdity of a single management structure, budget and determined time frame for ambitious and nebulous concepts such as meeting basic needs through integrated rural development. Yet, external support to development at the local level without projects had become inconceivable. Development professionals, including anthropologists like me, had to work within this framework.’

the-project-christopher-copywriter-comAn example of why this matters. Andy Ratcliffe of the Africa Governance Initiative, which supports government reform processes in West Africa, told me that they were only able to respond properly to the Ebola crisis because their funding has come from more flexible sources like Foundations and individuals (it apparently still helps having Tony Blair as your patron).

That meant that when the disease struck the countries they were working in, they were able to go to the governments in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and say, do you want us to get out of the way (as you won’t be doing much on education, infrastructure etc until this is over)? Instead, Liberia and Sierra Leone asked them to stay and help manage relations with donors: ‘AGI is a friend in need – we know you’re on our side, please stay and help’. Switching like that would have been much harder had they been stuck in a rigid project funding format.

So as a thought experiment, what would be a way to disburse aid without using projects, and in a way that is more compatible with the kind of models discussed at last week’s seminar? Are there better ways than projects to fund relationships, trust-building, facilitation, brokering etc?

Off the top of my head, here are some possible alternatives:

  • Fund people, not projects: This happens in lots of other areas, from Howard Hughes genius grants to scholarships and fellowships. Why see those as only suitable for recent graduates? You could have a graduation system, where aid funds a number of apprenticeships, and then the best are given longer term fellowships? Or standing arrangements for mentoring and coaching, for example by retired politicians and civil servants who know how reforms work and get blocked?
  • Then there is Payment by Results (although if you define the results very narrowly, and stick in lots of milestones and benchmarks, it starts to look a lot like a project).
  • Prizes such as Advance Market Commitments.

Any other ideas?