It’s time to decolonise project management in the aid sector
Full transcript and slide images below
I once provided project management support to a country office in Ethiopia for a conflict response. When I received the draft final report for this project, I found something surprising.
There was this question on the donor template: what difference did the project make to the affected population?
And as an answer, my Ethiopian colleague simply wrote: It created hope for the community members.
I laughed at it and told them they should change their answer. We’re not supposed to say our projects gave hope! But later on, I thought about it: well, what if it did give hope to the affected community? Isn’t that an impact worthy to be reported?
It occurred to me that the way we do project management in the aid sector—not just at reporting stage, but from proposal, to implementation, to monitoring and evaluation — is problematic. It is not designed with local values, knowledge and experience at the heart of it.
And this matters. Because we’ve all committed to lofty ideas like localisation and shifting the power. But how are going to make these happen if our day-to-day tools and ways of working are not fit for purpose?
That is why I think it’s time to decolonise project management.
In the 1970s USAID looked into the way they implemented projects. They thought their in-country teams didn’t really know what they were doing; and that their teams focused too much on inputs that often did not translate into the outcomes they wanted.
Their recommendation? Follow the military’s approach of logical planning. Thus, the very first logframe was born.
But what really struck me was this: they invented the logframe to pursue American objectives, not with the local communities’ interests in mind.
And ever since, we’ve followed this military-style logical planning in our sector: experts know best; experts make decisions; and the experts’ objectives — not the locals’ — are fulfilled.
So how could we change this?
There are four principles I want to suggest.
These aren’t new concepts. But taken altogether, these offer a framework for decolonising project management.
First, fund courageously.
There are two problems here: one, funding mechanisms incentivise gaming the system like submitting perfect proposals that aren’t actually based on local needs or contexts.
And two, funding is not accessible to those who are often the most effective actors: local organisations.
To solve this, donors must have the courage to accept uncertainty and messiness in humanitarian response, and rely less on perfect proposals that have to be submitted in strict templates and timelines.
And INGOs who are often sub-granting to smaller organisations must also have the courage to take a chance and invest in local actors, especially by making it easier for them to apply for funding independently — instead of sometimes stomping our feet when it comes to splitting indirect cost recoveries or funding organisational core costs.
Second, trust generously.
It’s funny how in some job descriptions, a PRINCE2 certificate is considered desirable. PRINCE stands for projects in controlled environments — but in aid, we don’t operate in controlled environments. We operate amidst complexity. And there’s evidence that to be successful in project management in complex environments, we need to trust more.
The economist Daniel Honig studied 14,000 aid projects, and found that they were more successful when implementation and decision-making were delegated more to local staff.
He says project success relies on local staff’s “freedom to navigate by judgment, making use of…local, contextually bound information that is difficult to include” in a report or an email to headquarters.
Given this, perhaps it’s also time we see more local and national staff at Northern headquarters as decision-makers.
Third, measure differently.
USAID’s problem 50 years ago is still our problem today: sometimes, we focus too much on inputs that do not necessarily lead to our desired outcomes.
But beyond this, we should also question our self-appointed authority in choosing what outcomes to pursue.
Or even our confidence of pursuing ambitious outcomes within our relatively small sphere of influence within people’s lives and communities.
So at reporting and evaluation stage, is there space for what some local communities value — like hope or happiness?
There are already approaches that incorporate this, such as Most Significant Change and Outcome Harvesting.
Or even more radically, as others suggest: perhaps we should stop using measures for evaluation altogether.
Lastly, be a bridge, not an expert
If we keep imposing our, frankly, Western-centric project management standards onto local people and staff, we will always see them as lacking in capacity.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. I come from the Philippines, and have sat in meetings in London where supposedly “experts” talked about the “lack of capacity” in my country.
But this just doesn’t match the reality I know. Where there is an abundance of capable, motivated people with no shortage of skills and good ideas.
So there is capacity.
But perhaps because of global, historical inequalities, there may not always be resources. Or maybe the capacity is not always in places you’d expect to find.
The task, therefore, is not to assume the lack of expertise,but to connect colleagues to the resources and power they need to implement successful projects — transforming capacity building, into capacity bridging.
So how does this look like in practice?
An example I could give is ActionAid’s humanitarian work, which is not defined by a speciality in a particular sector like health or food, but by this thing they call their humanitarian signature, where they focus on women’s leadership, accountability, and shifting the power.
And based on this, they’ve managed projects in a way that applies some of the principles I’ve mentioned, like providing funds directly to women-led groups for disaster response, or like working with other agencies to help develop a capacity strengthening framework, that doesn’t assume a lack of capacity, but builds on existing ones.
We’ve come a long way since the ‘70s, and of course there have been huge progress in the way do project management. And yet the military-style “expert”-led, logframe approach continues to haunt us.
But if we fund courageously, trust generously, measure differently, and be a bridge instead of an expert, then maybe we can begin to decolonise project management, and put local values, knowledge and experience at the heart of our work.
This was first delivered as a talk at ALNAP’s 32nd Annual Meeting on 15–16 October 2019 in Berlin, Germany.
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