What’s the problem with Projects?

While doing some blogging workshops, I got talking to various people in the Netherlands recently about aid moving ‘Beyond the Project’. Today’s guest post by Brady Mott explains the problem with projects. Tomorrow I’ll explore some alternatives.

The development sector has always engaged with the world through the vehicle of projects: logistically intricate arrangements linking financiers, NGOs, governments, businesses and ‘beneficiaries’ together into formalized schemes that attempt to achieve a goal through a series of predetermined activities.

Historically, projects have tended to be about resource transmission – be they financial resources, intellectual resources, physical resources, capacities, skills or whatever – from the wealthy regions of the world to what sensitive intellectuals like to call the ‘global south’. This typically takes the form of activities like service delivery, infrastructure installation, educational programming and loan servicing, and usually flows unidirectionally from the ‘haves’ – those who already possess the required resources – to those who ‘have-not’.

And that’s a project – an agreement by a bunch of parties who take part in activities intended to accomplish a common goal.

But the goals of the different members can vary quite drastically from the officially stated goal of the project. The financing organization of any project, for example, holds a highly significant amount of decision-making power in the project relationship. The execution of activities in any development project is generally contingent on a number of conditions set by the donor. These conditions are often logical, relevant and sensible. Sometimes, however, they don’t relate to the goals of the project or even to the eradication of poverty in general.

Take, for example, the first-ever financial activity undertaken by the World Bank. In 1947, the Bank loaned $250 million to France to fund post-war reconstruction, modernize the country’s waning steel industry and improve the national transportation system. It was the first of its kind; a massive injection of capital into a war-ravaged nation, offered by the newly-born Bretton Woods institution with the goal of rehabilitating Europe and promoting wider economic growth. This loan came with strict conditions: in addition to demanding a meticulously balanced budget and first priority for debt repayment (fairly sensible terms considering the size and context of the loan), the Bank required that all members of the Communist Party be removed from the democratically-elected French coalition government.

The implications of this are enormous. This type of conditionality, demanding profound political and economic restructuring on the part of the debtor country as a prerequisite for the loan, set the stage for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to exert political and economic pressure on debtor countries in the coming decades, for example through economic conditions, political contingencies and so-called Structural Adjustment Programs. This type of power dynamic is part and parcel of the nature and design of development projects, and permeates not only the project mentality but also pervades the entire notion of ‘development’ itself.

And it’s not just the Bretton Woods institutions that perform this type of power play through the financing conditions of development projects; it is all donors, governments, and NGOs who have a vision of a better world and a belief system that drives their strategy of how to get there. We here at Oxfam have a great number of clearly defined conditions for engaging in any given project, conditions that reflect our values and theories of change as an organization. Our requirement to reach a certain number of women through project activity, for example, reflects our institutional conviction that unbalanced gender dynamics are a leading driver of poverty. We won’t engage in certain projects that don’t meet our gender criteria.

By Bill Crooks, based on an original concept by Nigel Simister

And that is good; we should have conditions determining the nature of the projects we engage in. Setting standards and conditions is how we actualize our organizational values and drive the project in what we see as the right direction for meaningful and lasting change. The difficulty, though, is that the power to decide these conditions is always exercised by the powerful ‘haves’ – the donors, the governments, the NGOs – and seldom by the ‘have-nots’ – the people for whom these projects are ostensibly being created. The ability to drive the poverty-eradication process is granted entirely to the powerful, and stripped away from the powerless, further entrenching the power imbalance that projects are meant to overcome in the first place.

This irony is pretty well demonstrated in what is perhaps the quintessence of all projects: the Millennium Villages Project. The MVP was a $200 million goliath, founded jointly by the UNDP and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, driven by the Millennium Development Goal framework and formulated under the auspices of the Bono of development economics himself, Jeffrey Sachs. It was also a paragon of ineffectual, top-down development planning and an archetype of unidirectional power flow. Between the project’s failing to reach proposed targets, misreporting the numbers on impact evaluations, and Sachs making an embarrassing, quasi-colonial show out of people’s poverty, there are no shortage of things to criticize about the MVP. But the MVPs’ relevance to the issue of projects, and their inherent power imbalances, is best summarized by the author of Sachs’ biography, Nina Munk, when describing the strange power relationship between Sachs and residents of Sauri, the first MV:

“One of the astonishing discoveries was how quickly the villagers realize that when the rich white guy shows up, they have to reassure that visitor that his donations are going to good use. So, when Jeffrey Sachs visited, he got a skewed picture of reality. That’s survival; any one of us would do the same – and you would be stupid not to.”

So, instead of being drivers of the processes that are meant to effect change in their own lives, the residents of Sauri – or ‘villagers’, if you want to be offensive about it – were forced into the passenger’s seat, required to play the part of cheerleader in the process of their own economic development. Their role was not to actively transform their community in a way that they saw as being advantageous to them; it was instead to passively have development enacted upon them, to have wealthy, foreign experts dictate to them the ‘right’ strategies of how to overcome poverty, and to cheer them on, even as the project faltered, so that the funding wouldn’t dry up.

But let me be clear: the issue at hand is not the shortcomings of Sachs, or the MVP, or the World Bank or the IMF. It is the construct of the project, its governing power structure, and the implications that that power structure actually has for global economic development. We need to rethink the entire framework of development activity; but how do you even do development without a project?

Over to Duncan on that one.

Brady Thomas Mott is a member of Oxfam’s Transparent and Accountable Finance Team

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6 Responses to “What’s the problem with Projects?”
  1. Terence Fitzgerald

    When our most intimate personal relationships have mechanisms to affect incentives and manage risk (e.g., pre-nup agreements and wills), it’s not particularly surprising that all types of development assistance have similar arrangements (such as projects and contracts). I see the core issue more as the relative power of any actor in those arrangements to know in advance what they’re getting into – and to have reasonable means to propose changes as conditions evolve – rather than the existence of the arrangements themselves. And as much as a ‘project’ can be a vehicle to manage mistrust, they can manage focus and commitment well.

    • Brady Thomas Mott

      I agree that it’s not particularly surprising that all types of development assistance have arrangements that are expressed through projects and contracts, given that this is the standard modality through which to translate funding (eg foreign aid, assistance, ODA, or whatever) into results (ostensibly results that help defeat poverty). But perhaps the entrenching of this power dynamic is counterproductive to the eradication of poverty. Perhaps this power dynamic – even if initiated as a way to mitigate mistrust – does more to solidify inequality than it does to ameliorate it. Perhaps development ‘aid’, the organizational structures surrounding it, and the power hierarchy therein are not conducive to killing poverty. We have been trying the ‘aid’ approach for a long time, with exceptionally limited results. Perhaps an alternative approach would be more effective.

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