We’ve just submitted another funding application. As is usual in such cases I took on the lion’s share of the writing. Indeed this is one of the most important roles played by me and my peers in other small NGOs about the developing world.
We’re the rain-makers for three reasons. Firstly our command of English (or French) is usually better than our local counterparts: this becomes very important in condensing a 110 word summary of your proposed project into the 100 word maximum allowed by the donor on the application form. Secondly, the people making the decisions are usually quite similar to us (similar backgrounds etc.), so we have a better idea of what makes them tick, and thus how to hit the right buttons (succinctly!) in our proposal. Thirdly, expat technical advisers tend to be the key strategic thinkers / vision propounders: our local colleagues keep us grounded (extremely important) but the (elite) Western education that many TAs have enjoyed seems more effective at providing this kind of input than local ‘teacher always knows best’ rote learning. None of which is to say that there are not local counterparts who are extremely good in these skills, but usually they’ve had the benefit of a Western education, at least at university level, and hence are relatively rare.
Larger NGOs have realised this key role of the TA as rain-maker, and, following basic economic theory of the benefits of increasing specialisation, employ specialist proposal writers. The more junior of these folks are just there to do the translation of good ideas into donorese, but the more senior are brought in to actually provide the project conceptualization too. Other BINGOs habitually use consultants for this role, with a similar effect.
The trouble is that even the best strategies turn out to have flaws. As the old military saw goes: no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, you need to have a firm grasp on the big picture ‘vision’ for the project in order to work out how to address them. This becomes even more important when there is no big blow-out to tell you that things are going wrong, just a steady failure to achieve any impact: all those field visits may individually appear to be successful, but if the changes you are trying to instigate do not happen, then overall success is negligible. You need staff with good management skills to recognise these kind of situations, and adapt appropriately. You also need the management culture to encourage escalation of such concerns rather than just blindly following the agreed activity plan.
Unfortunately, in BINGOs, this often does not happen. “X came up with a great plan, but all the field team did was drive up and down the mountain a lot.” is one summation I heard. Mid-term reviews are supposed to help correct such situations, but the evaluating consultants only have so much leverage and are only around for a short period of time. On paper the BINGOs claim to follow all kind of best practice in planning and adaptive management, but the reality is that you need high calibre staff to implement this. At the end of the day, I think, there is no real substitute for having someone close to the field team with a clear understanding and ownership of the strategy; someone who can take responsibility when things go wrong and ensure the project gets back on track, and damn the work plan!
I recall once reading an interview with a multi-millionaire self-made businessman. The interviewer asked him what he thought made him so successful. The guy replied that he reckoned pretty much anyone could come up with a good business idea, the real trick is in making it work, the commitment and attention to detail that requires. I think the same is just as true of conservation and development (although it’s harder to come up with the good ideas): good strategies need equally good implementation.