Why donors should care more about project management

Walter Hekala. Photo from personal collection

In July 2011, my interest to find professionals in the discipline of project management within the multilateral, government bilateral and private donors sparked a discussion on the Project Management Institute’s international development community of practice website.

What I found is that particularly donor representatives are missing from the largest worldwide project management professional organization represented by more than half a million members and credential holders in more than 185 countries. As an example, Nigeria has a vibrant community of private sector and government PMI members.

A recent McKinsey-Devex survey reports “only 36 percent of those surveyed said that most aid projects achieve their intended impact,” suggesting only 36 percent of donor-funded projects are what we would define in the project management discipline as “successful.” To me, a 36 percent success rate is not at all surprising, having worked in the field of international development for the last 14 years. In fact, a 36 percent success rate may even be optimistic.

Why? International development projects are inherently high risk. They have many factors that are simply beyond the control of the project implementer, even employing project management best-practices. International development projects’ inherent risks should not deter donors, yet they can be better managed and controlled because two principal causes of project failure are 1) poor project planning and 2) inadequately skilled project managers.

If 64 percent of international development projects are not meeting established objectives, the delivery of those projects needs to change. Taxpayers are demanding greater accountability from their governments, and thus donors funded by governments are demanding greater accountability and returns on investment. As noted in a recent Devex article, a private funding organization like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with a much smaller pool of contributors and a higher risk tolerance, can tolerate a 10 percent success rate, but donors using public funds must be more conservative and accountable. 

As a principal with Nathan Associates, I am an “accidental economist” due to working with brilliant real economists who bring analytical skills to studying problems and estimating impacts to international development. At the donor portfolio level, there is a critical need for an economist’s analytical skills then donor assistance must move beyond just studying the problem. How many studies of the honey value chain in Zambia are needed if a simple Google search already produces over 30,000 hits?

Result measurement is equally important. Another trend is for donors to require organizations to spend large amounts of project funds on studying outputs versus the donor strategy. This new trend, however, reduces the resources available for project work delivery to the intended recipients. 

It is the middle ground between studying a problem and analyzing the results where project management is critical. 

The discipline of project management is essentially one of production and delivery: the delivery of well defined projects that will improve donor-funded results. Donors must take advantage of cascade of formal project, program and portfolio management standards maintained by PMI and consider “project management” as distinct a discipline as economics.

For donors, a “project” is the most common method for assistance delivery. Businesses and governments have followed PMI standards for decades to ensure the effective execution of projects from modifications to human resource policies to building a dam. Donors and international development professionals are typically “accidental project managers,” professionals with project, program or portfolio management responsibilities yet without any formal education, background, skills or certifications in the discipline.  

I, too, was an accidental project manager until I observed the difference between two projects I was managing: One was constantly near collapse and the other was grinding along, hitting bumps but on track to be successful. The source of this performance difference was the project managers. One was using formal project management standards and the other was not. I suspended the failing project long enough to train the team in basic PMI project management skills. It worked. The result was a “challenged” project in PM terms, but it was not a complete failure.

I also self-invested to get myself more skills and credentials in the project management discipline. I learned how invaluable during project planning and delivery the discipline can be. As an example, a project plan must identify the sequential dependencies to establish baseline project estimates if it is to stay in the project scope that is bound by the triple constraints of time, cost and quality.

Why are donor organizations not more proactive to take advantage of knowledge sharing, best practices, and lessons offered by PMI?

Donors need more people to move beyond their academic disciplines towards the project management discipline. Daily work references for international development professionals should include “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge,” the now-in-development ISO standard for project management, and the PMI standards for program and portfolio management.

Previously, the World Bank was a stronger advocate within PMI, even chairing the International Development Special Interest Group, but that participation seems to have faded. Representatives of other very large multilateral and bilateral donors have never even heard of PMI.

Still, there has been recent evidence of change: Some terms of reference for development projects advertised on the Devex website have referenced PMI standards; a recent symbiotic relationship between Inter-American Bank and PMI has developed in Brazil. Perhaps change is on the way.

Also, fortunately for NGOs, there are great opportunities to incorporate formal project management through the materials, grants and scholarships of the PMI Educational Foundation. Perhaps even donor organizations could tap this resource. Members of the PMI international development community of practice also are willing to give presentations on project management best practices to donors if asked.

Hopefully, in the future, donors will incorporate the collective knowledge of decades of practice, millions of projects, and hundreds of thousands of professionals in project management into their work, and then demand that those implementing projects they fund do the same.

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