Posts Tagged ‘time frame’

Rome wasn’t built in three years

This is a follow-up post to my previous one over the lack of adequate diagnosis by Engineers Without Borders in determining the cause of failures they have admitted. Here I turn my attention away from the admitting failure process to address the substance of EWB’s failure. It is also specifically a response to Erin Antcliffe’s question on Twitter and an expansion on my 140 character response:




However, this isn’t really about EWB’s volunteer-based business model. The mediocre achievements of the development industry over the past 50 years suggest that all the development experts in the world don’t amount to very much, at least not if they’re working in the wrong framework. As such I applaud EWB’s intentions and efforts to “search for new models for development impact” (Erin in comments on David Week’s post).

My top tweet above might come across as harsh, but I think is fair. I’ve been working where I do for over 10 years, and I’m still very much learning about the country and its people. All the really effective NGOs I know around here have staff who’ve equally stayed around for the long haul, many longer than me.

And yet expatriate development programme staff the world over typically stay for only 3-5 year posts at maximum, with many doing shorter stints. I had one friend who had worked for 3 different UN agencies in 3 different countries doing 3 different jobs, each for only one year. He wasn’t a senior consultant brought into to lend his advice for a set period, but a junior officer who was presumably good with spreadsheets. But why would the UN seek to foster such wasteful career management?

I can guess at two ‘inspirations’ for this myopic approach to HR management:

  • Many aid projects, equally myopically, last only 3-5 years.
  • Diplomats tend to get rotated quite regularly, and donor bureaucracies generally evolved out of foreign ministries.

But it doesn’t really matter how we arrived at this ridiculous situation, we just need to get out of the rut. Rome was not built in a day, or even a 3 year project cycle. It’s quite simple: if you are serious about tropical conservation or development then you need to make a serious time investment. We need staff who’ll stay the distance, not just lay a few bricks on an aqueduct then move on.

So to answer Erin’s question: obviously you cannot demand that staff sign up for 5+ years right from the word go (and especially not with volunteers), but you can orient your whole HR management to encourage long stays, with career development in situ. New recruits should understand that this is the organisation’s culture from early on, and learn the importance of continuity to achieving lasting results.

This would require a complete redesign of the architecture of bilateral aid projects (which certainly could do with an overhaul), but NGOs have greater freedom and could much more easily push this approach starting right now. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but then tropical conservation and development clearly aren’t easy. Time to saddle up for the challenge!

ps. The counterpoint to all of the above is that fossilised staffing is also not a great road to success. As such aid organisations need to balance continuity and long term management with regular injections of fresh blood. Again, not always an easy task.

New year, new start

It’s the start of a new year (hope you all celebrated in style, folks!), and many people choose this time to start something new. Of course not all of  them last, but mostly we at least mean them do so when we begin them, even all those ill-fated fitness drives. No-one deliberately joins the gym in January if they actually intend to stop going in February.

Donors are no different (though their financial year may be). They always like to start something new, to fund that innovative new project that transforms the aid landscape. This has two pernicious effects. Firstly, it means that boring old-style stuff (even last year’s great innovation) that has been proven to work is no longer the flavour du jour, which is a great pity since if something is proven to work (and is value for money) then it ought to be a no-brainer to fund. Not so! This can be incredibly frustrating for NGOs who regularly have to find new justifications to fund the same old work.

Secondly, in the absence of endlessly increasing amounts of money (maybe not an issue for DfID over the next few years), one or more existing projects have to make way for the new ones. This is easily accomplished by putting a timeframe on all these projects in the first place, thereby automatically freeing up funds later on. Hence we end up with fixed term development projects in which we are only just approaching success when the taps are turned off. I have written before about the sustainability issue (my greatest pet peeve), but I recently also came across a fantastic (old) post by Owen Barder on the issue.

As Owen pointed out more recently, this fixed-term fixation is especially hypocritical when applied to such things as agricultural subsidies. And yet the default approach of otherwise reasoned commenters (ok, one commenter at least) is to assume that subsidies must be for a limited period only.

How about this for a new start instead: what if donors just funded the same old stuff for once, and didn’t put a term limit on it right from the start, but said “Let’s see how this goes …”?

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.


For my first post I want to talk about one of my pet issues, and something which is likely to become a recurring theme in this blog; sustainability. Sustainability lies at the heart of many of the issues dear to the environmental movement; climate change, biodiversity loss, overexploitation of target species. Forestry and fisheries policies are, in essence, studies in ecological sustainability, which are then subject to varying degrees of political subversion. There’s a lot that I could talk about there, and probably will in some future blog post. But for now I want to discuss the issue of project sustainability.

In other development sectors, e.g. health or infrastructure, it is possible to supply a developing country with a particular good, e.g. AIDS vaccines or building a new road, which, to a degree, can be treated as a one-off donation. Donors may reasonably conclude that providing longer term assistance, e.g. in vaccine management and distribution or road maintenance, may improve the efficacy of the original donation, but even without these the initial donation generally has clear value. (Or at least as long as the donor has done their homework first, and checked the donation is actually needed.)

However, conservation is ultimately a social process aimed at achieving behavioural change. Whilst in well-functioning states a lot of conservation aims can be realised by achieving change in government policy, developing states rarely have the resources to enforce properly new regulations, particularly in low priority areas (which, regrettably, appears to include many environmental rules). Hence the need to support policy aims with substantial field projects, many of which must perforce work with the local people who live around site of interest. Thus it is that in tropical countries, in which the great majority of biodiversity is to be found, much conservation work has a strong social development element. Personally this appeals to me … so long as it is done properly!

A typical social development project in the tropics last for 3-5 years to fit with donor funding cycles. It may be that subsequent phases may also be funded, although often with some kind of a gap between, but eventually, having been established as a ‘going concern’ the project is usually handed over to the host country government to manage thereafter. This is known as the Exit Strategy. Unfortunately, the management capacity of the poorest countries often just isn’t up to the task, and the field of social development is littered with failed projects. Five years after the project ended often there can be very little evidence, except for the odd tatty poster, that there was ever a project there in the first place. Bill Easterly has this to say about the issue in his book White Man’s Burden:

“Besides the visibility bias towards new construction [e.g. roads, schools, clinics], the underfunding of maintenance reflects the elusive goal of ‘sustainability’… Donors envision the local government taking over the project, which they think is necessary to make it last. This intuition was once appealing, but the decades of evidence show that that dog won’t hunt… trying to make the project ‘sustainable’ usually guarantees that it will not be ‘sustained’… But donors keep flailing away at this infeasible but inflexible objective.”

A classic reason for this failure is the withdrawal of project resources such as a project vehicle and funds to pay per diems. I once visited an old trial tree plantation project which had fallen into disrepair since the original funds had run out and no tending or thinning had been carried out. Except that the plantation was right outside the local forestry office, who presumably had all the necessary machetes and spades, but just did not expect to continue to do work for which they had previously been paid extra.

The donor’s rationale in all of this is that if they fund a given project into perpetuity that stimulates aid dependency and is thus, by definition, not sustainable. It is up to host countries to determine their budget priorities; if they do not subsequently allocate resources to a project for which they have been handed responsibility then, the argument goes, they cannot have been that interested in it in the first place, even if it was demonstrated to represent clear value for money etc. This problem is particularly acute in the environmental sector, which generally has much lower priority than health, education and economic development, and this is one reason some conservation theorists have suggested that if the ‘West’ wants to achieve conservation then they should expect to pay for it, pure and simple.

Some payments for environmental services type projects (REDD is the latest example) are an attempt to move in this direction, but still most donors are stuck in their existing model of aid delivery in 3-5 year cycles, and seem unable to contemplate longer time horizons. A friend of mine recently showed me a draft consultancy report which had come into their possession. The consultants had been asked to advise on the suitability for a particular way forward for a community-based conservation project that was coming to the end of its 13 years of donor funding. The consultants were greatly concerned about the future for the project under local government management. This is what they wrote:

“If … sustained support is to be realised it will be necessary to deal with the inevitable donor fatigue that is unfortunately likely to set in. [The donor] have been supporting activities at [the project] since 1997, and all the indications are that they expect to phase out support very shortly; indeed the [last three years] can be seen as the principle manifestation of this thinking. We believe this would be a grave mistake, surrendering all the important gains made [by the project] up to this point, and effectively writing off [the project] as a waste of money. Presumably this is not what the tax payers in [donor country] have in mind when they pay for development support to poor countries such as [host country].”

The consultants were advised by the managing consultants (consultants, consultants everywhere!) that this would not be helpful, and the paragraph was deleted from the final version of the report. The rest of the technical consultants’ report was generally pretty positive; they clearly did not think the project had been a waste of money. In fact the project had won an international award for its achievements.

If long term (ideally 20 years plus) support to social development projects is not politically palatable in donor countries then so be it, but why on earth do they keep throwing money at shorter term projects which are doomed to fail?

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