What if we scrapped The Project – are there better ways to fund development?

Yesterday I gave some general feedback on last week’s Doing Development Differently conference. Today I want to talk about projects, or rather The Project. Joel Hellman of the World Bank TheProject_Logo_500x281gave the following definition:

What is a project?

–          Time bound (1-5 years)

–          A Legal Agreement

–          A cluster of contracts – employment, implementing partners, consultants, evaluation. All of them work within a set of rules, set both by donors and recipient governments.

–          A predetermined set of results (the focus on these has increased in recent years due to logframe/metrics fetishism – my words, not Joel’s)

–          Post review audit and evaluation of those results

How did this particular construct come to be so all powerful in the aid and development sphere? I remembered this quote from Ros Eyben’s wonderful book, International Aid and the Making of a Better World

‘The project is a device that development agencies use to organise complex reality into a manageable, bounded unit. In 1966, Hirschman referred to them as ‘privileged particles of the development process’. Back then, in addition to providing Third World governments with ‘manpower’ for health, education and other services along with some budget support, international aid provided infrastructure projectised in the same manner as the construction of roads, bridges,etc. back home. In theory, recipient governments presented fully designed projects for funding and the aid agency then appraised their viability and relevance. In practice, aid agencies, equipped with budgets that had to be spent in a timely manner, actively encouraged recipients to think of useful schemes that fitted the project paradigm.

A project was seen as a capital investment, which was then (in principle, often not in practice) maintained by the recipient government. Early projects produced something concrete – such as a power station or hospital – but by the 1970s the United Nations specialised agencies were using the project model for an expanded range of objectives, such as the ILO Youth Training Centres Project that gave me my first job as a development professional. Although by then aid agencies perceived development as more complicated than initially thought and needing more than bridges and roads, the project had become the default aid instrument. It produced the patent absurdity of a single management structure, budget and determined time frame for ambitious and nebulous concepts such as meeting basic needs through integrated rural development. Yet, external support to development at the local level without projects had become inconceivable. Development professionals, including anthropologists like me, had to work within this framework.’

the-project-christopher-copywriter-comAn example of why this matters. Andy Ratcliffe of the Africa Governance Initiative, which supports government reform processes in West Africa, told me that they were only able to respond properly to the Ebola crisis because their funding has come from more flexible sources like Foundations and individuals (it apparently still helps having Tony Blair as your patron).

That meant that when the disease struck the countries they were working in, they were able to go to the governments in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and say, do you want us to get out of the way (as you won’t be doing much on education, infrastructure etc until this is over)? Instead, Liberia and Sierra Leone asked them to stay and help manage relations with donors: ‘AGI is a friend in need – we know you’re on our side, please stay and help’. Switching like that would have been much harder had they been stuck in a rigid project funding format.

So as a thought experiment, what would be a way to disburse aid without using projects, and in a way that is more compatible with the kind of models discussed at last week’s seminar? Are there better ways than projects to fund relationships, trust-building, facilitation, brokering etc?

Off the top of my head, here are some possible alternatives:

  • Fund people, not projects: This happens in lots of other areas, from Howard Hughes genius grants to scholarships and fellowships. Why see those as only suitable for recent graduates? You could have a graduation system, where aid funds a number of apprenticeships, and then the best are given longer term fellowships? Or standing arrangements for mentoring and coaching, for example by retired politicians and civil servants who know how reforms work and get blocked?
  • Then there is Payment by Results (although if you define the results very narrowly, and stick in lots of milestones and benchmarks, it starts to look a lot like a project).
  • Prizes such as Advance Market Commitments.

Any other ideas?


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28 Responses to “What if we scrapped The Project – are there better ways to fund development?”
  1. Adrian Young

    Nice post Duncan, I have been pondering such a question ever since I read Rondinelli’s book Development Projects as Policy Experiments. The best alternative I have heard of to date is the approach of the Asian Coalition for Community Action programme, which utilises a more flexible community finance model to help fund locally driven initiatives. The IIED has done a lot of research on this, for example see: http://eau.sagepub.com/content/24/2/423.abstract

  2. Sarah Jackson

    Thanks for raising this, project-based funding came up regularly as an issue for Womankind’s partner organisations when I was there.

    The lack of flexible funding to cover core costs or capacity building is a major problem for women’s rights organisations generally, given the socially transformative outcomes they are working towards. Changing gender stereotypes and cultural norms is long term, intensive work.

    Womankind produced a report about the issue which had a couple of recommendations for alternative to funding women’s rights work, and held the MDG3 fund up as a model: http://www.womankind.org.uk/download/16589/

    • William Hayes

      Thank you for this link. It has helped me (an observer in the public galleries) understand how one donor country (Netherlands) via its focus on fields in which it excels (food security, water, sexual and reproductive health and rights, security and the rule of law) has contributed to the progress made towards MDSs.

  3. Nicholas Colloff

    5 years is rational because research shows that the timeframe for people in leadership positions horizon for comfortably managing uncertainty is around five years. However, alternatives include core funding, building flexible long term relationships tested against results, offering expertise, and timing interventions against the actual timeframes to achieve a putative outcome whether three weeks or twenty years!

  4. David

    It is probably a variant on funding individuals, but how about funding institutions? Donors making (say) 10-year commitments to block-fund an organisation (be it public sector or NGO) in return for which they get governance rights (and responsibilities) – board seats and the like – through which they can exert influence, but also provide advice, contacts and support. The organisation is free to use the pledged resources to adapt to circumstances, set things up, close them down or otherwise ‘pivot’ (to use the start-up jargon). The donor gets to influence at board level, but their overall aim is the creation of a ‘successful’ institution that will make a long-term net positive impact (long beyond the original 10 years), as opposed to trying to buy any particular short-term impact (as dictated by a logframe). Or to put it another way, on organisational health as much as performance (https://solutions.mckinsey.com/catalog/media/PerformanceAndHealth-InSearchOfSustainableExcellence.pdf).

    Clearly the nature of the governance model will differ in different circumstances (governance rights are complex if we are talking about public sector bodies) and would have to be carefully designed to make sure that the funded institution is sufficiently independent so as not to be entirely captured by its donor. I do however think that enshrining the governance rules and relationship via something formal like a board may turn out to be less pernicious than short-term project-by-project funding that makes the reliance more significant in practice even if it is less formal.

    A similar issue comes up amongst Development Finance Institutions (those of us who invest for-profit capital in the private sector for development outcomes). The standard language in DFIs is also about investing in ‘projects’ which I think implies a narrow, inflexible, short-term and transactional process. I much prefer (as is standard amongst the best private sector investors I know) thinking about investing in companies or entrepreneurs – which (to my biases) implies collaboration, open-endedness and the aim of building a successful and sustainable enterprise (albeit perhaps one that after 10 years looks quite different to what people thought it would look like at the beginning).

    • Leon

      The suggestion of funding institutions in return for some role in governance or decision making is excellent. However it does sound a bit like a SWAp – sector wide approaches – which don’t have a great reputation.

      One problem is that if you take any particular ministry in a developing country there will be (at least) 20 different donors fighting between themselves for seats on the board and undercutting the conditions they place on use of their funds. If all of them are allowed to join it will be chaos as they will have different priorities and systems for monitoring and reporting on use of funds.

      A major flaw of the project model is that there are simply too many projects, and this is a result of there being too many donors. I would like to see the number of “client facing” agencies halved over the next five years by mergers, closures, and an increasing number of donors accepting to take a back seat funding role with resources being pooled into the smaller number of agencies/NGOs/etc. who do the work on the ground.

  5. Caitlin

    Funding people – YES PLEASE. Or funding organisations. Particularly in terms of supporting civil society I would like to see many more donors supporting organisations/CSOs/local NGOs or individuals with core funding over longer terms (5 years would be a dream, most projects are 2-3 yrs). Expecting small, local NGOs sit down and write complicated logframes and project proposals, in English, is a ridiculous idea. It means that only those organisations who can afford an international consultant, and have at least one English speaker in management get the funds -which isn’t necessarily the organisations that provide the best services, do effective advocacy, or whatever it is the donor is trying to support.

    Another good model I’ve seen is World Vision Area Development Programs that go into a particular community and commit to flexible support for 10 years. Room to Read also does this I think – fixed time assistance. This means the community has time to embed the processes and practices and is more likely to continue activities after the period of the donor assistance has finished (also of course provides more time for results to be achieved rather than made up in the final project report ;-)).

  6. Gareth Price-Jones

    How about just prizes. The most quoted examples include the Ansari X prize and the Longitude prize. Very good at supporting innovation, ultimately flexible, the challenge being that you need cash to invest up front. However, having a prize to aim for could be a useful spur – Donors could grant money to agencies or communities specifying simply that the money be used to make a competitive attempt at winning the prize.

  7. Emily Brown

    Fund me……!!! I’m Oxfam’s Gender and Governance Advisor – coordinating and supporting programming like the Raising Her Voice Pakistan work that, as you so rightly noted in today’s post, is fundamentally rooted in thinking about the realities of people, power and politics and, as a result, able to demonstrate again and again practical AND structural changes to women’s lives as a result. Transformative programming at its best.

    I have £23 million of proposals submitted in the last 2 years – strong proposals for programmes in 31 countries globally including DRC, Myanmar, Chad, Somaliland, Guatemala. Despite this huge demand (and this is only the stuff that’s crossed my desk), only 4 of these have been funded from external donors – with Oxfam stepping in in many cases to sustain partner’s women’s rights work or to enable them to influence critical opportunities like Myanmar’s elections or Tanzania’s Constitutional Reform process.

    So, a simple suggestion….no to more innovation funds, lets get funds in for programmes that are shown to work. Job done! As the sector is slowly but surely seeing the fundamental importance of solid gender and governance analysis, programming and partnerships, organisations like WOMANKIND Worldwide, Equality Now and programmes like Raising Her Voice surely deserve more support.

  8. Brendan Whitty

    Interesting thought experiment. I suppose there’s always conditional loans, technical experts and budget support! I find it hard to picture a scenario where funds for development are not being allocated up from an allocated pot within a bureaucracy. Pretty much every bureaucracy will will require prior documentary justification for an allocation, and from there it’s still it’s just a short step to The Project criteria laid out in the post. So for me it’s a question of looking at why our bureaucracies look the way they do, and asking if and how we can change them.

  9. Alan Hudson

    I’d suggest a slightly different take on this, which would be to identify key features of “the project” that are problematic and then think through whether and how those features might be reconfigured. (Paying attention too to the retention of any useful features/functions of “the project”).

    This might amount to doing projects differently – e.g. more demand-driven, more flexible, more direct engagement with people (I know Accountability Lab have been doing some useful thinking on “People-powered aid”) – rather than persuading some very reluctant donors to abandon the notion of projects.

    I don’t think this is just semantics though. Approaching things in this way might helpfully focus attention on specific problems with projects and how they might be changed.

    Also worth noting that there is massive variation already in the nature of projects, so throwing the whole notion out might be over the top?

  10. Blair Glencorse

    Great post and some excellent comments (Couldn’t agree more, Caitlin; and thanks Alan). A few ideas:

    i) Move away from the idea that money is the most valuable resource- human, intellectual and network resources can be far more powerful. The over-emphasis on funding distorts incentives and undermines creativity within civil society. Of course large-scale infrastructure etc needs funding, as do smaller projects but it is amazing what you can get done with very small amounts of money- with the Accountability Lab, all of our projects are $5,000 or less.

    ii) These smaller ideas can be brought together within a much larger “programmatic approach” from the bottom-up- see the KDP in Indonesia and the NSP in Afghanistan- locally-driven, locally-owned solutions that can allow for rapid disbursement and impact on the ground where it matters.

    iii) Point i) above also allows an approach that embraces risk so failure can be a learning process. The problem is that far too much good money gets thrown after bad into projects that haven’t worked because the shifts in approach can’t take place within the incentive framework. Hence the aid projects that have been ongoing for years without any indication that they are really having the intended impact.

    iv) Fund individuals- absolutely- and find them by taking the time to listen and triangulate (everything is political), to really understand who those good people are and why/how they are doing what they do. Then longer-term support (of a variety of different types) is key. And I agree that non-written reporting is important- we hold “Accountability Collectives” which are joint, oral reporting sessions every month. This allows for synergy, accountability and is a lot more fun for everyone, frankly, than filling in logframes.

  11. Alex Jacobs

    Great question. I agree with Alan. As well as their many problems, projects provide convenient ways to organise money & work, and to enable management oversight – which are important. Given entrenched realities, the question is: how do we make projects work better? E.g. Could we advocate for: annual participatory reviews & budget revisions; real stakeholder analysis upfront (that is given as much weight as activity analysis); and other requirements for transparency, downwards accountability and flexibility to respond? For instance, Outcome Mapping has done a lot in this area. Another key step could be defining outcomes as results that *other people* achieve with the outputs of our work, which helps shift the focus. Luckily many field staff are already skilled at managing the madness of fitting social processes into project boxes. Can we help donors make this easier?

  12. Tess Newton Cain

    I think there is a lot of merit in the ‘funding people’ or ‘funding organisations’ concept particularly in relation to areas that are not very easily defined or described. An example that come to mind is that of knowledge sharing and brokering – by its very nature it is something that has to work across projects, programmes and involves coordinating with individuals and organisations from multiple sectors. But it is a key element to sustainability and achieving value for money. It is also something that lots of people struggle to do well. And so we end up with research that is not adequately informed by ‘what we already know’ and lots of ‘projects’ doing things that are hard to tell apart (gender sensitised DRR climate change adaptation is the current favourite it seems) with insufficient attention as to how we are enabling the wider environment through meaningful dialogue, collaboration and effective partnership. What is needed is what Enrique Mendezabal calls a ‘boundary worker’ – someone who is trusted by all the players and who can identify strategic insertion points.
    This form of value-add would do wonders for development activities in the Pacific where we are awash with research but none of it’s being used.
    And for what it’s worth the best person to do precisely this is precisely me 😉

  13. Kasaija Rogers

    The project as an approach to fund development is appropriate only to the extent to which the final customer is involved in the leadership, analysis, programming, consulting, documentation, operation, billing and support.

    Why? Because, as we say, ‘only the wearer of the shoe knows where it pinches most’. Many projects have failed to make meaningful improvement in the livelihood of the recipients because the customer is reduced to a spectator, to be billed for what others thought was good for him/her.

    The end recipient must be fully involved for ownership, involvement and continuity. Negating the project approach, instead of addressing its functional inefficiencies, is like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  14. Andrea Rodericks

    Excellent discussion… I agree with Alan and Alex… Think about the problematic aspects of the project and find ways to address them – I don’t think we should dismiss the whole idea of projects. Clearly the time frame of projects without any commitment or thinking around issues that may need longer is problematic… can these be adjusted to enable development actors to make longer term commitments and investments in people and issues? Can learning be incentivised (in projects and from communities, other projects, previous projects)? Can projects be encouraged to pay attention to social analysis and address underlying causes of poverty? Can outcome and impact assessment of projects (and extended beyond projects) focus more on learning the story behind the impact… and on real outcomes/ changes, rather than assumed ones. Can projects be guided to build knowledge, not just branded communication products? Can organizations and projects that truly build learning relationships, that challenge the status quo and are accountable to impact populations be supported with some core funding to strengthen their capabilities?

    Complementing projects and other initiatives toward long term programming, can we invest in building leadership and management capabilities among development actors to move away from traditional planning processes to processes that better take into account the complexity of the challenges they are addressing? Can we develop projects and initiatives that specifically support organizations to adapt to make them fit-for-purpose to address complex challenges? And, can we invest in leadership and learning networks at the front lines – among field officers, extension workers, animators?

    There are a lot of people (or let’s say warriors) out there who have been able to do some of what we are asking, but almost under cover trying to fit into the guise of a project…. battling within their organizations and with donors, and often being made to feel incompetent. Let’s listen to them better, celebrate their work, and help them be more effective.

  15. nicola

    I believe funding institutions, with a “core fund” approach, instead of a project based approach is a good strategy. I am enjoying this strategy at ECREEE (www.ecreee.org ) where AECID, ADA and UNIDO have committed funds over several years to cofinance ECOWAS efforts to support the Center itself, its structure and its activities.

  16. Sam Gardner

    Dear Duncan,

    Thank you for this post. I agree with everything you say except for one thing: If we want really to go to a system of doing things differently in development, the project (small p, not Capital P) will, probably, be the central building block. The current project approach however has become a dinosaur unrecognisable from its lizard origins. Just like with Doing Development Differently, it is often better to build incrementally on what you have than to jump large scale etc.

    I try to make a few points:

    1. the project was a welcome approach compared to the “whatever” that existed before. It was a liberation to define actually what you were aiming for, making the participatory problem tree putting the beneficiaries central (with Paris, the government and not the poor are central now), solution tree (now called political economy), the risks and to focus on what you really wanted (do you remember a project was supposed to have ONLY ONE objective if there were more they had to have an hierarchy). The core of translating the problem tree to the objective tree would now be called the theory of change.

    2. The project was created for “engineering” interventions. bridges still need to be build. Most things that can be fit in Randomised Controlled Trial can use a rigid logframe too.

    3. Time inflation. A project was meant to attack a well defined issue within a certain timeframe. It should fit in a wider political approach. I would argue that if you need more than a few years (except for a big engineering project) a project approach is probably wrong, or even it would be better to scale down the ambition and split it up.

    4. Uncertainty of donor behaviour is central in development work. In Vietnam, the UN has done more than was asked from them to Deliver as One. This leads to nothing. Donors have a new fad: act as if the World Bank imaginary line for Middle Income Countries is a real frontier and they stop every funding. Tough luck. Seen from the bottom, the behaviour of donors is purely random, although the top down view is smooth. This is why we crave long term projects: some certainty that funding for a commitment has some length. Get rid of the long term project and this fickleness will immediately translate in a funding switch.
    5. Long term commitments to goals, short term commitments to activities. It would be nice if there was a long term commitment to long term goals, e.g. participation of farmers in the management of their irrigation scheme in a region. Projects could be short term and small, fail often and fail fast, I don’t see this kind of generalised behaviour in Donors.

    6. Agile project approaches in IT: In programming, the classical long term planning in projects has been abandoned long time ago. I myself have had good experiences applying the Scrum on strategy formulation. With the Scrum, you normally keep your goal, but can change course in a very fundamental way. You can even adopt a new goal if it seems useful. Of course, I told superiors only I was formulating a strategy when it was already finished, they would have agreed with the participatory and iconoclastic approach.

    7. Bureaucratic inflation: some of the problems with projects are inherent to the approach. What we see in religion (if Jesus did not come, it is not because he won’t come, but because we were not strict enough) or in politics (Marxism in the USSR did not work, not because it is only a limited view of reality, but because they were not strict enough, let us be stricter) happens also in bureaucracy.
    A project was supposed to be a strict, but limited building block within a wider political framework. It has become a monster expanding in time, money, objectives. To get more control more control, audit, time, bureaucracy was added. The project grew bigger. The problems are mostly related to size: projects should be minimal building blocks within a wider framework. As bureaucratic costs grow, the minimal budget grows, as we don’t move under 5 million.
    8. The container or internet analogy. Small, limited projects, limited in time, bureaucracy and budget, can be exactly what is needed for agile development. Instead of using an unruly methodology, the scrum approach can be adopted. As the project is smaller, the risk is smaller too. Personal trust becomes sufficient basis for funding, what it should not be for dinosaur projects.

    Concluding, a lot of problems of the project approach are in fact not linked to the logframe itself but to the rigidity and fickleness of donors. As this is a complex system, we should change the donor incentives. As donor policies fruit only under the following donor government, normally with a different development minister, I would not bed on it.
    PS, finding your blogs older than a few days became more difficult on your homepage lately.

  17. Sam Gardner

    The hyperproject

    Sorry for posting more, but I had an insight while driving in the storm along the lake to find some basil and mint seedlings to plant on my terrace.

    Reading “aid on the edge of chaos” and “the tyranny of experts”, I conclude there are 2 logical evolutions if we accept the world is complex:

    1 the light touch, short, small trials, multiplied. Fail early, fail often. The scrumble.
    2 The Hyperproject (with capital H) where you try to stick the whole universe in one project (http://bit.ly/1wTLgVO). It is high modernism (James Scott) in overdrive. “Scientific Aid”. We indeed include all the possibilities on corruption, all the links between political leaders etc and try to manage everything together (http://dailym.ai/1wTLv34).
    As the global economy went down when every bank and stock was too rigidly linked, the Hyperproject runs the risk of catastrophic failure, after perhaps humming nicely for a while (The Soviet Union held out very long.).

    Now as far as bureaucracies go, they will always choose for an orderly, scientific approach if they can. What do you think? Will the hyperproject be the reaction of bureaucracy to complexity? (Donor coordination, planning top down division of labour, no overlaps, audits and value for money— Ho, this is the current paradigm, sorry)

  18. MJ

    The problem of projectisation of long term development initiatives is an old obsession of mine (and the topic of my very first venture into the blogosphere http://bottomupthinking.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/sustainability/). But, as Brendan says, the problem lies in the political economy of the donors, and I suspect originates with treasury departments keen to control expenditure. What I find especially frustrating is that donor governments clearly can cope with long term funding commitments, e.g. for major infrastructure, but also probably many defence procurement contracts. So why can they not manage it elsewhere?

    The danger, of course, is the loss of accountability that comes with automatic funding. But that can be managed, as some of the above suggestions make clear. What I think we need is to move from a presumption that funding stops at the end of a defined project timescale, and towards a presumption that it will continue, but could be withdrawn if progress is unsatisfactory. Ideally that would be tempered with some commitment that project implementers should generally have a year’s notice of any cessation of funding (i.e. decisions are made wrt the following year), and with proper attention to phase-out arrangements that are not just fig-leafs for donor fatigue. Funds could (indeed should) still be pulled at much shorter notice in the case of major failures or serious corruption.

  19. Juma Mnwele

    Great piece of alternative thoughts on how projects can sustain-ably be funded to produce intended result but more important, ensuring the are people driven apparently this has been long over due challenge.

    An alternative from my point of view is the newly and commonly used approach through “contract funding”

  20. Sam Gardner


    Looking from the other side (donor) , the problem of accountability is really enormous. Funding happens for different reasons, and lobbying or objectives are only two of them. The best lobbying NGOs will get the most. In general these are not the NGOs lobbying for politically controversial objectives, rather those lobbying for money for themselves.

    Most NGOs that get funded are really not worth it. If I were an NGO, I would not accept the word NGO to mean a category, with myself in it.

    Secondly, it is necessary to have competition. An NGO getting non-competitive money will soon be a bureaucracy (this time it is different). Non-project funding is mostly non-competitive. Most program funding is so complex that the allocation is more magic than selection. Often the administration resorts to waffle iron politics: make sure everybody gets something and bury it under a veneer of quality control and selection.

    Of course, your NGO is different, but in my experience most non-competitive allocations of tax-payers money stink to high heaven. Although I see the theoretical case.

    As a bureaucrat, you have to be transparent and accountable, not optimal. This is for good reason. Experience has proven that magic getting optimal results in non-transparent ways is often too good to be true. Meaning, when the shit hits the fan, the bureaucrat explains in the court of public opinion and the real court too.

  21. MJ

    Hi Sam,

    It’s good to get your perspective on things, and I appreciate your assumption that we are better than other NGOs. However, I think it should be possible to manage the concerns that you raise. For a start, the very first grant decision should obviously be competitive, and no different from how current grant decisions are made. But once through the initial exploratory / inception phases of the project (maybe up to 2 years?), a donor should have the intellectual honesty to admit to themselves that what they have signed up to support is evidently a long term effort.* Indeed I contend that any other position is at best being economical with the truth, something parliaments tend not to be so keen on.

    So having reached that position, the donor should put the project into a different pool, in which the competition is managed by the donor rather than re-sourcing proposals every few years. Under this system the donor compares existing grantees with newly sourced proposals in a competitive and transparent manner. Where an existing project looks poor value compared to new ones (or just poor value full stop), then the NGO(s) concerned is informed, and they are put on a 1-2 year long funding exit track.

    This approach would reduce the overheads and uncertainties for everyone substantially, and should also eliminate the appalling funding gaps that no donor ever has to suffer and which can just kill a small NGO.

    * Not all project grants will necessarily be long term efforts, but anything involving social change almost certainly will be.