Big fish swim in bigger ponds

The ever excellent Ben Ramalingam posts on the complexity challenges of scaling up aid projects. He and the paper he reports have many interesting and valid points, and yet the dry analysis glosses over I think one of the biggest challenges of all: increasing political interference. It is relatively easy to run a successful small project largely under the radar; those few people who know about it won’t feel threatened by it. In such instances I have vaguely sensed what seems to me a rather patronising attitude from local officials; that it’s quite wonderful that the great unwashed should have their little aid project play thing to keep them happy, while they continue in their ways very much as before, and as long as things stay that way everyone else is happy too.

But as you scale up and the numbers become bigger two things happen. Firstly some people start to feel threatened by your project. You may be directly stepping on their toes or constraining their ability for future manoeuvre, or it may simply be that your success risks putting their rather more modest achievements in the shade, leading to their bosses (and ultimately the donors) to question why they are throwing so much money at regular system when there appears to be a better way of delivering said results. Secondly, the sharks will smell the big money and start to circle. Big development programmes are patronage opportunities and per diem cows to be milked to the utmost. Additionally, and as I’ve previously remarked, you lose the tight management team you had before and instead are confronted with trying to manage a big programme through the leviathan of government bureaucracy.

I think this explicit political dimension is captured to a certain extent in some of the figures that Ben reproduces (trade union organising is listed as an example), but I think it unwise simply to relegate it to one aspect of systems complexity. To be fair to Ben, I think he is not arguing that politics is unimportant, merely presenting a systems-based analysis of the challenges faced. Anyone interested in trying to scale up projects should read his blog post and take due note of the recommendations. Just don’t forget the politics!

Establishing and maintaining a supportive political environment is a major challenge and critical to the success of any aid project beyond the very smallest scale. As I sometimes joke to friends: in my job as a conservation project manager in reality I’m a part time conservationist, but a full time politician. Unfortunately that’s not out of choice.

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One response to this post.

  1. [...] But that is not the biggest problem that I see. Even the best designed systems need to interact with things outside their control, in particular people; indeed I suspect that the MVP has people playing integral roles at every step in the way (i.e. that mostly what we’re talking about here is systems for organising human work). A system’s output is constrained by the quality of these interactions. In short, as any good businessman knows, you need competent and motivated staff to deliver a high quality of service. And that is where so much service delivery in developing countries falls down, with last mile service delivery particularly badly managed. Unfortunately short-term, local solutions to this are not scalable. [...]

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