How do you critique a project proposal? Learning from the Experts

A confession – I’m not a programme person. I’ve never run a country programme, or spent aid money (apart from squandering a couple of million quid of DFID’s during my short spell there). So I really enjoyed a recent workshop in Myanmar where a group of real programme people (and me) were asked to critique an imaginary (but not that imaginary) project proposal. It was a great introduction to what it’s like running a programme in a conflict-affected state.

Here’s the proposal:

‘The year is 2016 and a medium-sized INGO is designing a civic empowerment and engagement programme for

Kachin's the pink one at the top
Kachin’s the pink one at the top

Kachin state [one of Myanmar’s many conflict zones].

The INGO’s head office in Myanmar is in Yangon [the biggest city] where they employ mostly national staff. International staff members fill senior management and thematic advisory roles. The INGO has been working in Myanmar since 2013, mainly working with local partners to implement projects designed around the INGO’s global civic empowerment methodology in Mandalay and Bago [cities in comparatively peaceful parts of Myanmar].

This civic empowerment methodology aims to educate citizens about their rights and Myanmar’s political system and support Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to engage with the state government using a variety of tools such as participatory budgeting and public forums.

During the design phase, the INGO made several research trips to the state capital, Myitkyina to speak with ethnic Kachin organizations as well as the Kachin state government. After this, the INGO partnered with one medium-size CSO based in Kachin state, which they provided with training from their global civic empowerment handbook.

During a pilot phase of the project, this CSO was responsible for working with communities around Myitkyina township to educate people about their legal and political rights, organize various social accountability activities, and work with state government officials to build their capacity.

After one year of implementing the project, the INGO was able to secure additional funding to scale up the project outside Myitkyina and began looking for additional partners to implement the project in more townships in Kachin state. They prioritized those townships where their international technical adviser would be able to easily access, so as to comply with the INGO’s internal monitoring policies.

Around the same time, it became clear that many of the priority governance issues for communities the CSO was working with were related to land and so the project introduced specific education about Myanmar’s national land use policy and began advocating to the state government for its implementation.’

Second confession. When I read this, it didn’t seem that bad. Boy was I wrong. As the experts got stuck in, a range of horrendous flaws emerged. Here’s what they came up with:

Who are or what is excluded from the project?

  • Ethnic armed administrations (who govern parts of Kachin state) – didn’t engage with them in either the design or implementation phase.
  • Myanmar government-level permissions and buy-in is missing (big oversight in still conflict-ridden and highly centralized system)
  • Myanmar military is missing in both design and implementation (military a major power in conflict states and across the country – they’ve only just (and partially) handed over power to Aung San Suu Kyi’s party)
  • Minority non-Kachin ethnic groups are missing from design, and potentially implementation

bad-projectsFit with governance and conflict context:

  • Local context can be very different from township to township.
  • Why only choose Myitkyina for analysis? May be because of easy access, but better to select the townships you need to do a proper context and conflict analysis.
  • A key aspect of the context is complete zero trust between government and Kachin citizens- the project isn’t taking this into account, e.g. education about a government policy could be seen as doing propaganda for the government, risking both the imaginary INGO and the partner CSO’s reputation, and probably not convincing anyone
  • Cannot work on participatory budgeting where there are no budgets and in the middle of a war zone


  • Testing through piloting before scaling up
  • At least they did some initial research, though limited on where they went and who they talked to
  • Tried to respond to citizens’ concerns by bringing in the land issue


  • Using global handbook and not adapting it
  • Basing selection on where international staff can access
  • Putting compliance before the needs on the ground


  • Choosing only a single CSO partner is too risky. For example are they Baptist or Catholic (the two main religious groups in Kachin)?
  • Aligning only to national government and its land policy
  • Since it probably won’t work, both citizens and government are turned off the whole concept of social accountability: citizen’s expectations are raised, government/KIO aren’t able to respond, both are disappointed
  • End game not clear: most budget decisions are not made locally therefore what impact on local services is possible?

Impacts on conflict

  • KIO (the Kachin Ethnic Administration) could feel you are strengthening the state when should be focusing on peace building

How to do it differently?

  • Need to adapt the tools significantly- cannot roll out what worked in Mandalay and Bago into Kachin, very different contexts.
  • Need to frame as citizen’s focused, working on their needs, and how they engage with a range of actors (both state and non-state), rather than on citizen-state engagement
  • Trust building: How do external actors show through their actions that they themselves are trustworthy?
  • Select communities differently: find an alternative to the international technical support issue
  • On land: start with what communities are experiencing, and look at a range of processes, not just the policy, but also how it’s informally working. Build a dialogue with what is actually happening. Engage with KIO land policy development
  • Potentially look at engaging with a less political issue to begin with (land is always tied to economic interests and likely to be an explosive topic).

The exercise left me with even deeper respect for the wisdom and judgement needed to do aid well. It should be an essential  part of any aid person’s induction. In particular, the penny finally dropped that this is what ‘conflict sensitivity’ means in practice. Previously it had felt like just another bit of aid jargon – now I realize it is crucial to working in situations where conflict is either already happening, or could be triggered by thoughtless aid projects.

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2 Responses to “How do you critique a project proposal? Learning from the Experts”
  1. masood

    an endless story repeated in so many places. In conflict zones access to services would be badly affected. Why not build a programme around needs like drinking water, irrigation, education? Build trust within the community and government and military by doing so. Use the space you win to build their organisation. Invest in building the capacity for survival of these local institutions. In a subtle way bring the issue of rights and governance into the dialogue.Balance hardware and software in your programmes

  2. While it certainly sounds like the experts involved were doing a good job, a critique really needs based on an “approach” or a “model” not an ad hoc response. The model here isn’t obvious. The humanitarian, development, peacebuilding sector seems quite often to start from scratch without taking enough benefit from what is already well known, adding an underlying methodology and model could really move things forward. There are a couple of stand-out issues as far as failure to use what is already well known (but maybe in other fields – humanitarian, development, peacebuilding seems to endemically suffer from the view that it is “separate and different” and therefore somehow excused from learning from other sectors and activities). One issue that could be systematically addressed in the proposal is complexity, another is power imbalance analysis. Both are well understood – but maybe not so well in humanitarian, development, peacebuilding as other areas that we could learn from.

    For example: classic “complex domain” issues: you can’t repeat the same action and expect the same result which leads to first bullet point of the How to do it differently? statements.
    “- Need to adapt the tools significantly- cannot roll out what worked in Mandalay and Bago into Kachin, very different contexts.”

    Another classic complex domain issue, the need for a probe-sense-respond sequence, here the only place that a probe is mentioned (it is called a pilot) it is praised. The sequence could be (personally I would say: should be, or even: must be) repeated at all stages as working in the complex domain requires what is called “emergent practice” and the process of probing is the first step in creating emergence.

    And then the proposal has a whole raft of power imbalance issues, between a number of key actors. But no systematic approach to power analysis and techniques and strategies already known to deal with this. There could be a significant benefit in a systematic, established approach to power imbalance that is applied to the variety of power dynamics in the proposal. Each power issue should not be regarded as separate and different, they are all amenable to the same type of analysis and action (though different in detail) and whoever is writing the proposal should be bringing in established standard approaches that are known and understood.

    I guess my overall criticism is that the approach is trying to reinvent the wheel (in several areas) instead of standing on the shoulders of giants.