just do it (better)

Donors and aid beneficiaries want different things. Everyone moans about it eventually. But it comes to a point where it’s a fallacy. What donors want and what beneficiaries want isn’t completely mutually exclusive. I think there’s a big, fat, intersection in that venn diagram. The trick is to get a hold of something within that space, and give it a tug. No, you’re not The One. No, you’re not going to cast the Ring of Aid into Mount Doom. But you still might just do something useful. At least that’s what I’m hoping.

I’m in Kotido this week. It’s a one-bus-a-day town in Karamoja, about 500 bumpy kilometres north of Kampala.  I’m here because I’m facilitating a week-long training session for 25 people from HRI and our partners here, on the much underappreciated subject of project management. You would think NGOs and INGOs in particular would be awesome at project management after half a century of doing relief and development projects. Alas, that tends to be bollocks. As a sector we don’t rate proficiency in project management as an independent discipline. We’ve developed a multiplicity of quality standards in the last 20 years, but no commonly accepted quality standard in getting the job done. Meanwhile, over in the private sector, they’ve got enormous recognition of how important this is. That’s wrong.

That’s wrong… and it’s weird, don’t you think? Because whatever we’re doing, I bet you a hundred bucks to a bottle of Nile lager, that both our donors and our beneficiaries would love it if we just had our shit together a bit more. Didn’t arse about so much we delivered the tools and seeds a month after prime planting period and whined about how (all too predictably) the grant disbursement was late or (like it always is) recruitment was harrrd. Didn’t pat ourselves on the back when we finally got around to scaling up for the food crisis as it was plateauing or winding down, but attributing the credit where the marketers felt it was due. Didn’t blame the donors, the rains, the roads – though those can be real problems – but instead managed that risk and structurally addressed our utterly addressable internal halfarsedness.

Maybe it’s because in any INGO of sufficient size supported by all those £2/month grannies handing over their hard-earned, there is zero practical selection pressure on that INGO’s survival due to programme quality. Any mega INGO running a thousand projects a year around the world can deliver twenty of them (2%) awesomely, by pure statistical probability and probably some dumb luck. And twenty great projects? There’s every happy picture and story arc you need for next year’s mailshots taken care of, and then some. If you’re a £2/month granny, give your shrapnel to the INGO with a pile of institutional donor grants. Someone’s at least watching every last one of those. Definitely not perfectly, but there’s power and scrutiny. And agencies that survive on them, well, you get to free-ride on the highest common denominator of their compliance procedures and audit culture. No, it’s not power and scrutiny in the hands and voices of the beneficiaries. But it’s half a loaf.

I’ve said it since day one of this blog. Aid exists. Ergo, do it better.

I’m blogging today because I want to show you the faces of the focused, diligent, and hard working people up here in Kotido, learning about project management. Because these are the real faces of professionalization of the sector, not more white westerners with slightly more relevant Masters degrees.

And, because I never want to have to see them or anyone like them again.

I’ll tell you why tomorrow.


6 Comments on “just do it (better)”

  1. How much do you think the situation would be improved if all NGO project managers had a few years of private sector management experience first? (Obviously many already do, but plenty don’t). Or are the problems much more structural? Maybe you’re going to tell us in the next post…

    • Cynan says:

      I think it would be improved significantly, in the short term. But, project management is core business for NGOs. Almost everything we do is projects. So it shouldn’t need previous external experience – we should have the knowledge, processes and culture in place to grow our own project assistants and project officers into project managers, just as a matter of course.

  2. […] and has their wits about them has thought about aid accountability and related issues. He asks what would happen if INGOs “Didn’t arse about so much we delivered the tools and seeds a month after prime […]

  3. […] learning approaches on project management that I wrote about back in February. You can read part one, part two, part three and part four. My colleague is in Tanzania, the ‘condition 3′ […]


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