We recently got a consultant’s report appraising a project proposal in which we’re a partner. The good news is that the donors are going to fund it, but they want a revised proposal. Apparently some fairly important issues were not clear to the donors which is fair enough. However, appraising consultants clearly believe they’re not earning their (very generous slice of) daily bread if they don’t write a long, involved report. So we’ve got a loooong list of issues to respond to, some of which are plain daft*, some querying things we were asked to do by the donors after they received the first draft, and others just go to show the consultants didn’t spend enough time checking issues, rehashing old concerns that were addressed a while ago.
But the biggest problem we had with the consultants’ approach was that it is VERY BUREAUCRATIC. We are constantly being told that they sense potential, innovative thinking amongst the partners etc., but then complain that it is not fully reflected in the project proposal. This seems to me to miss the wood for the trees. Surely, the point about this exercise is not to produce the perfect proposal, but to get the best project possible. If they think the partners have the right ideas who really cares about the project proposal? The consultants’ approach was exemplified in the following recommendation:
“Writing proposals for funding, and delivering to donors requirements, is an acquired skill, requiring recognition of the donors’ needs for accountability and monitoring. This proposal has clearly worked hard to achieve the necessary standard but some gaps remain. External support appears necessary to complete this proposal, and would also help [the lead partner] and the partners to better manage future donor applications, reporting and partner relationships.”
Eh? Let me just get this right: you’re recommending we spend further lavish sums on you and your ilk so all the donors can wow themselves at our amazing use of the latest jargon and buzzwords? There was plenty more along these lines, e.g. suggesting one of our partners lacks the wherewithal to chair a meeting neutrally (so the consultants could do it for us!) which is just utter tosh.
On the other hand, we do have reason to be concerned as to the consultants’ expertise. One has negligible previous experience of the country in which we work whilst the other has never been involved in a project remotely like the one we were proposing.
So let’s be clear about this: if we want someone to give us some money then we need to explain clearly what it is for, that is self evident. Furthermore they have the right to hire an independent external evaluator to check on their behalf for any red flag issues. But, if a project has taken us months to plan, and incorporates lessons from a previous pilot phase, funded by one of the same donors, then in one week’s running around the country you are unlikely to understand every aspect sufficiently to offer detailed criticism. And it’s just plain rude to try making extra work for yourself when you’re paid so much more than the real innovators. Advice is welcome, self-promotion and unfounded criticism not.
However, an equal responsibility lies with the donors who are responsible for the context in which said consultants are operating; if they didn’t demand such ridiculous levels of paperwork the consultants wouldn’t write reports like this. Donors could give more freedom and responsibility to in-country (i.e. embassy) staff to approve and support projects which they know are good without endless proposal tinkering. (Though for this to really work well, said embassy staff would have to stay for longer stints than 2-3 years.) They should also stop trying to influence small details in such projects (the consultants advocated a role for the donors on the project steering committee which is absolutely not going to happen), and instead have greater confidence in those they have chosen to fund. (Give them the rope to hang themselves if so be it.) No wonder developing country officials get so exasperated with donor meddling.
Sadly, I cannot imagine this situation changing very fast, so it’ll be back to that proposal in the new year …
* I’ve previously written about gender mainstreaming and conservation. Now, apparently, we have to mainstream health issues too despite the complete lack of relevance to the proposed project.