Posts Tagged ‘project design’

A yardstick measure of inequity

No development project can possibly benefit everyone equally. E.g. a project aimed at creating jobs and other economic opportunities will disproportionately benefit the able bodied. Most people would agree that is not a reason not to undertake such a project.

Some donors attempt to get around this by mainstreaming support for so-called disadvantaged groups, and requiring projects they support to incorporate some kind of support for disadvantaged people into their work. I think this is a fairly silly approach. For a start you are never going to capture every single disadvantaged person: women and HIV/AIDS sufferers are the most commonly supported, mentally ill people rather less often. Secondly bolting on such adjuncts comes at the expense of project focus, and leads to project managers overseeing work in areas in which they are far from experts. Much better, I reckon, for donors instead to support a wide portfolio of projects that ensure disadvantaged groups are given a chance. (Different donors could even specialise in supporting different disadvantaged groups.)

But if we are to accept a certain inevitable degree of inequity in project design, how much inequity is acceptable? And by this I do not just mean how much is acceptable not just to us, but to the would be community of beneficiaries? Here is my suggestion for a convenient yardstick.

Probably the single biggest dimension of inequality in the world is the nationality of your parents and/or where you were born. And yet, a few philosophers apart, this is not an inequality that gets many people especially riled. Envious: yes, angry: not so much. My guess is this is because there is no human agency involved. The outcomes are very unequal, but, by and large, poorer people have not suffered a specific recent injustice perpetrated by identifiable rich people to cause this inequality. Even with colonialism, when taken as a whole, it is hard to argue that people born today in ex-colonies are poorer as a result, and plenty of people argue colonialism brought various developmental goods in exchange for lower freedoms.

Instead most people can accept without a deep upwelling of anger that even if you are born in the bottom 5% of the population in the UK, you will probably be able to watch TV every day of your life that you want to do so. Indeed, even if you do not have a job, the UK government will pay you enough money that you can afford to watch TV when you want to. Whereas if you were born in rural Malawi, say, you might only occasionally ever get to watch TV.

Thus my yardstick is this: does your project appear to introduce more inequity than this basic starting inequality? If so you should be worried? If not, you may well be ok. In many ways it is not a very good yardstick: rural Malawians and poor Brits are not living side by side, and so the inequity is remote, hidden even. Moreover the key point is that poor people do not really have anyone to blame for this starting inequality, whereas project staff and managers are clearly identifiable for local ire if unfairness is perceived. But it does provide a philosophical anchor point that could be useful during project conception if ever you are worried about differences between winners and losers that could arise from a new project.

Maybe someone else has a much better yardstick?

Theorising pig flight

“Everyone these days (funders, bosses etc) seems to be demanding a Theory of Change (ToC), although when challenged, many have only the haziest notion of what they mean by it. It’s a great opportunity, but also a risk, if ToCs become so debased that they are no more than logframes on steroids.”

That was Duncan Green writing a couple of months back. I totally dig the turn of phrase, but (luckily!) have so far escaped any such experiences of being enslaved to a donor’s preconception of what a ToC should look like. On the other hand I do find logframes (or ‘lockframes’ in the memorable corruption) more than a bit tiresome such that I might be inclined to reverse the comparison, and describe logframes as theories of change on steroids.

If you are worried that you might fall into that class of people who “have only the haziest notion” of what a ToC is then you can go read Duncan’s blog post (plus an excellent selection of comments) or Google for a whole bunch of other informative web sites. But over in this little corner of cyberspace I quite like my ignorance of the more formal definitions. Not that the above sources are not useful, quite the opposite, but I prefer the ‘pornography test’, which is to say I believe I have a pretty good intuitive idea of what a theory of change looks like, and I reckon I know one when I see one.

To me a ToC is primarily just a reasoned explanation of how what one proposes to do will actually deliver the impact you expect to achieve. It can be summarised in nicely boxed flow diagrams and the like, but for me the real test of a ToC is that it can stand up to reasoned, sceptical argument.

Where, I believe, so many conservation and development projects go wrong in their design, is not in their use or lack of use any particular framework, but in just plain sloppy thinking and lack of self-criticism. Part of the problem in development, it seems to me, is that we are too often too nice to each other, and not inclined to criticise (constructively!). This challenge can be exacerbated when discussions cross cultural boundaries: local ownership and deference to regional social norms are important, but should not trump having a workable plan in the first place.

Conversely we are also often too formal. A single written proposal, however, well constructed is never as satisfying as being able to discuss and probe people’s plans in person. And who reads those tediously long project documents any way? The result: too many projects approved primarily on the basis of the executive summary, without real testing of assumptions. And that’s when those flashy graphics really come into their own: great for communicating the central thrust of an idea, useless at exposing logical fallacies.

MJ’s theory of porcine aerodynamics: flashy graphics may not stand up to serious scrutiny.

MJ’s theory of porcine aerodynamics: flashy graphics may not stand up to serious scrutiny.

So I like donors who are prepared to get into a real conversation with their grantees, to get to know them and their plans a bit better. Such relationships can more easily support adaptive management, which in turn allows you to be a bit more relaxed about any flaws in the original proposal, because now you have a framework in which to manage deviations from the plan.

And how do you succeed with all those awkward discussions in which design flaws are impertinently probed? As one of the commenters on Duncan’s post put it: “the first order of business is to build TRUST.”

Aid project selection & implementation

Some great quotes in a new working paper proposing a different approach to M&E by Lant Prichett et al. My eye was particularly caught by these two from the conclusion.

“The reality of the project selection process, inside government organizations and between government organizations, tends to be an adversarial process of choosing among projects, which puts project advocates in the position of making much stronger claims for project benefits than can be supported, and being more specific than they would like to be.”

I’m relatively relaxed about the tendency to make over-ambitious claims of expected project impact since everyone does it, and is thus likely to fairly well factored into how projects are viewed. The problem of over-specificity in design is, I think, a bigger problem since it leads to significant wasted effort during the project proposal stage developing ridiculously over-detailed action plans and budgets. Most donors like to think they are flexible when it comes to plan and budget changes mid-grant, but the simple requirement to obtain approval is a deterrent to project managers and a source of risk: what if they do not approve the changes?

The issue of over-specified designs has other implications for implementation too:

“Organizations like the World Bank perpetually over-emphasize, over-reward, and over-fund ex ante project design over implementation. This is because in the standard model, implementation is just faithful execution of what has already been designed, whereby the thinking is done up front and the implementation is just legwork. However, de facto many successful project designs are discovered when project implementers are given the flexibility to learn, explore and experiment.”

As I wrote before: good strategies need good implementation. If the implication – that big donors like the World Bank already know this basic fact – is correct then it really makes me question the whole competitive grant awarding process that dominates NGO involvement in conservation and development. Donors could save everyone a lot of trouble by awarding grants on much shorter project outlines combined with a good track record of delivery (which needs to be much more robustly assessed). Good NGOs would be strongly incentivised to deliver good outcomes since otherwise they would lose their future funding. An entry level system would still allow new players to prove themselves, and also those fallen stars to re-establish themselves.

I will blog again tomorrow on the core proposal of the paper when I’ve had longer to digest it.

Hat tip: the Blattman

Whatever happened to ICDPs?

Back when I started this blog, two of my earliest posts (parts 1 and 2) concerned my criticisms of Integrated Conservation & Development Projects (ICDPs). The name got rather a bad reputation so one doesn’t hear too much about them these days, with thankfully the focus now much more on approaches such as REDD, community wildlife management and community beach management units in fisheries, that explicitly link community benefits directly with the natural resources being conserved. However, they have not gone away entirely, and any time in a community-based conservation project you hear the term (Alternative) Income Generating Activity, you should be on alert to a displacement activity covering up deep flaws in project design. That is not to say IGAs are always inappropriate, but they do need to be properly justified.

Whatever the terminology, this approach to conservation appears to be alive and kicking in the Lower Mekong Basin, and has recently been critiqued in a new book Evidence-based Conservation: Lessons from the Lower Mekong, which in turn was summarised on CIFOR’s excellent blog. Some of their conclusions echo my own previous criticisms (my comments in brackets):

  • Define clear and plausible goals and objectives from the outset. “Too many project documents … do not really articulate the overall long term goals that they seek to achieve.” (A problem that can arise when project planning starts with the premise ‘something must be done’, rather than here is ‘something that can work and should be done’.)
  • Market-based mechanisms may help marry conservation and development. For long-term conservation projects, funding is crucial. (Yes, so don’t design everything around donor funding.)

Others are more generally applicable:

  • Monitoring systems are a source for learning and change, so use them. (No kidding!)
  • Fully understand the policy context. (Ditto.)

But there are two conclusions with which I find it harder to agree:

  • Provide alternative income generating activities. “Solutions must … always be context specific … understanding and negotiating trade-offs between conservation and development is fundamental in ensuring optimal outcomes for both.” (I totally agree with the quote, but fail to see how that leads to the headline conclusion.)
  • Invest more in education, awareness and capacity building. “Scaling up such capacity-building to the national level remains one of the biggest challenges for conservation worldwide.” (I’m not against such investment in theory, but too many conservation projects invest too much in such things, and not enough in their core design. And sometimes small projects may be best off staying small, see previous posts of mine here and here.)

The bottom line: “Many ICDPs have excessively ambitious goals and they inevitably make mistakes, so it is really important to make sure that we learn from those mistakes,” says Terry Sunderland,  one of the book’s editors. Word! (And not just for ICDPs.) Maybe the best lesson we can learn from this exercise would be to consign the whole ICDP concept to the dustbin?

Dimensions of Sustainability

One of the big disappointments of Rio+20 was the evisceration of the Sustainable Development Goals initiative which now looks like it is going nowhere. I hope that some of the ideas underlying that can find some other outlet; I particularly liked Kate Raworth’s notion of the sustainable development doughnut, in which economic activity is constrained by social minima and environmental maxima.

But, as with my previous post, there is no reason to wait for international politics to sort itself out; we can get implementing these ideas in our own efforts right now. When it comes to designing conservation projects I like to use another visual metaphor, what I call the dimensions of sustainability.

Typically a conservation project will start with a problem statement along the lines of habitat A or species B is severely threatened and something must be done. This may be expressed as a target to prevent the area of habitat shrinking below a given carrying capacity or a population declining below the Minimum Viable Population. Thus a red line is drawn. Everything else must fit around that line, and the further away from the line the better, so not only do we start with a massive constraint, but the whole project design is oriented towards pushing the target variable as far as possible from that minimum.

The problem is that this monocular vision of sustainability greatly constrains the range of solutions which might be considered, and can also lead to blinkered project management with negligible attention paid to other variables. Instead I like to start with a general consideration of the ‘sustainability space’. This space has three primary axes of environmental, social and economic sustainability (ref the three chambers of FSC). Each axis, however, may be a composite of various measures (or sub-axes, if you like), e.g. the environmental axis may list habitat protection, biodiversity and carbon as important issues, the social axis may consider issues of equity and cultural propriety, and the economic axis returns on investment and ability to meet the needs of the market (as opposed to the project logframe).

For a project to be truly sustainable we need to keep all of these variables within sustainable bounds. Excessively prioritising one or two over the others will rarely be constructive. Moreover consideration of this wider picture may help one to understand how a little shift in that initial red line might in fact make the whole difference between project feasibility and miserable failure.

Moving the red line can create space to find a workable solution

For the hard-core conservationists out there it is important to note that this is not about compromising on important principles; if a habitat fragments too much it ceases to function as God intended. But many of those red lines we like to draw are based upon questionable data, and may be somewhat precautionary. Neither point invalidates the need for a line, but they do suggest a certain amount of flexibility. This is important when considering the range of practical interventions. It might be that without such flexibility no project is likely to succeed. (Alas such unsolvable equations are too often not sufficient to stop investment in the project.)

Instead my approach of considering the various dimensions of sustainability is intended to define the problem space properly. It is only within that space that we are going to find any solutions.

Disclaimer: I don’t claim any great originality for the insights above so I would be interested to hear if anyone has similar or alternative frameworks. Equally please do let me know if you ever find the above useful in designing a project yourself.

Do you work for a donor?

If so this post is for you. I was talking to some others of your species yesterday. We were lamenting the problem of short term grants; my fellow conversationalists agreed that this was a real problem, but what can you do? Governments won’t countenance long term commitments. (Although multi-laterals like the World Bank don’t have to deal with annoying things like general elections, so not sure why they cannot take a longer view.) One chap related the general amazement recently when a ten year grant was approved – that this was something almost unheard of.

I didn’t think of this retort yesterday, but here’s what I wish I’d said in reply:

If you work for a donor we need you to be brave. Next time your boss tells you to work up an outline for a 3-5 year development intervention to achieve some kind of social change, don’t just knuckle down. Tell her it can’t be done, period. Tell her that 10 years is the minimum under the most optimistic of considerations (so optimistic that you’d have to be a bit of a looney to really believe it will succeed) and that 15-20 years is the kind of commitment that is actually required. Whatever you do, do not attempt some kind of compromise proposal (‘the best you can manage’). It won’t work, and we all know donor promises for follow-ons are dubious at best, and always involve ridiculous gaps while the results of the last phase are evaluated.

Maybe your boss will get the message, maybe you’ll get fired. But at least you’ll have done the right thing. Don’t be another creature of the system in which things are done like this just because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

What’s wrong with ICDPs? (Part Two)

Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) were discredited a long time before I took aim at them, and so you won’t find too many proponents of them today. However, they haven’t entirely gone away, they’re just not called ICDPs any more. In order to understand why one needs an insight into project design as practised by donors and BINGOs (Big International NGOs), and quite a few smaller NGOs too. They will identify a conservation problem, either that has been specifically highlighted by others, or which has come to their attention through strategic mapping of biodiversity values and threats to highlight priority areas for intervention. They will then note that the location of this conservation problem has lots of poor people living there. These days the big operators probably have a policy which says they have to consider local livelihoods etc, and, as I noted in my previous post, local people and poverty may well be root causes of the conservation problem.

So the donor/NGO decides ‘something must be done’ about poverty in the area. Indeed this stems almost directly from their decision that ‘something must be done’ about the conservation problem. Richer protagonists will, at this point, commission one or reports from ‘expert’ consultants to assess local livelihoods and what are the options for intervention. Such consultants know very well who is paying their bill, so will almost always propose at least one way to try to tackle the problem. (Entirely negative report = no future business.) And thus it is determined what ‘something’ must be done.

Unfortunately, in this problem driven process, the priority is on doing something, rather than identifying a solution that is actually feasible. This is a difficult paradox to resolve since prioritising conservation funds on the severest and most urgent problems most definitely make sense in a world of limited resources. Sometimes the problem may be so big and/or urgent that it is reasonable to argue that ‘something’ is at least worth trying.

However, the reality is that I see far too many conservation projects that are ‘working with local people’ but achieving precious little development or conservation, and where the link between the two strands of the project are not clear. Talented and imaginative project staff may, to some extent, be able to overcome this problem, but even then there can be serious concerns about overall sustainability. Elsewhere such projects simply descend into box-ticking exercises devoid of a coherent strategy. ICDPs are unfortunately far from dead.

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