The phantom team leader

By Jeson Ingraham 16 June 2015

Agricultural technicians help supervise farmers and their farms during a collaborative effort in central Mexico. Technical expertise versus management skills — which one is more important for development leaders? Photo by: Xochiquetzal Fonseca / CIMMYT / CC BY-NC-SA 

Most industry observers believe the leaders of increasingly complex development projects must combine subject matter expertise with strong executive skills — a rare combination. Do the leaders we are searching for exist?

One of the most important factors in whether a donor delivers on its objectives is not one likely to come up in conversations about aid effectiveness. The policies and decisions surrounding what type of person gets hired to manage donor-funded development activities — a technical expert versus a strong manager — may not be as glamorous as getting value for money, promoting innovation, or weighing the political economy. But at ground level, there is nothing more important.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.K. Department for International Development and others have long relied on technical experts to manage development projects. In seeking out project managers — chiefs of party or team leaders — it’s not unusual for a donor to ask for decades of experience in a narrowly defined technical area. The system arguably worked well when projects were smaller and more narrowly focused but has not adjusted for the transformation in how aid is delivered.

Aid from donors is often described in terms of flows. It’s actually delivered in bits and pieces — checks to governments, short-term advisory work, or long-term projects run by outside organizations. Since 1997, spending by the world’s wealthiest donors has skyrocketed from nearly $71 billion to almost $135 billion in 2013 even as staffing levels have at best been maintained or in some cases cut. As a result, donors have spent more money through longer-term projects that have become larger and more technically diverse and demanding.

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About the author

Jeson ingraham
Jeson Ingraham

Jeson Ingraham manages partnerships and opportunities as program development director at TechnoServe, a nonprofit organization specializing in business solutions to poverty around the world.

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