Improving Development Impact

25 Maret 2020

Getting the measure of water in a southern Indian village. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

By Daud Khan
ROME, Mar 24 2020 (IPS)

Most developing countries have good policies, programmes and projects in place. Many of these have been prepared with assistance from development partners or international financing institutions such as the World Bank, the regional development banks, the UN agencies or bilateral aid agencies.

Most of these are of high quality and have gone through intensive review and quality control.  The major challenge is to effectively implement these policies, programmes and projects. Unfortunately this does not often happen and leads to huge lost opportunities. This is particularly the case in the poorest countries, many of which are conflict affected. 

To improve things, there are three major problems which need to be addressed: Political Will, Technical Efficiency and, what I call, Last Mile Issues

Little is likely to improve unless there is Political Will at the highest levels of Government to raise incomes across the board, and not just for the few who have political power; address poverty and improve food and nutrition security. 

Very often at international meetings and conferences it is often the delegates from the poorest countries that stay in the most expensive hotels, wear the most expensive clothes, and are driven to the meeting in the most expensive cars. Surely some “shaming” would be in order
The principal reason why this does not happen is capture of political and economic power by small groups of people, who then misappropriate funds meant for projects and programmes, or put in place policies which directly benefit them.  Very often the money thus stolen is transferred to banks in developed countries.  

Can anything be done in such a situation?  Possibly very little. But there may be a few actions by the international community that might help. 

More openness on the part of banks in developed countries about large deposits from developing countries – known for their lack of transparency – might help. 

Another could be to better link international processes, such as prosecutions at the International Criminal Court, with financial sanctions such as blocking of bank accounts of those under trial or sentenced.

Yet another, which would be effective, but politically difficult, is to “name and shame” the worst offenders in international fora such as at the United Nations. Very often at international meetings and conferences it is often the delegates from the poorest countries that stay in the most expensive hotels, wear the most expensive clothes, and are driven to the meeting in the most expensive cars. Surely some “shaming” would be in order. 

The next set of problems relate to Technical Efficiency.  Getting projects and programmes implemented requires effective and transparent management; good monitoring systems; and an accountability system that holds people responsible for reaching well-defined milestones.

These relatively simple and well understood management practices are spelt out in most project and programme documents. Usually ample financial provisions are made for these actions and for associated ICT systems.

However, in practice, getting effective implementation is very difficult.  Good implementation means constantly making decisions, frequent mid-course corrections, and, above all, taking risks which range from financial to reputational to operational.  

Most development projects and programmes are implemented by salaried public employees.  For many of them working as a project or programme manager is only one step in a long career which tends to be highly competitive – not so much in terms of rank or salary, but in terms of getting prestigious assignments. 

In such an environment reputation is critical and officers tend to be highly risk averse. Far better to miss a project milestone than break a bureaucratic rule, or take action against a non-performing but politically connected team member. 

Solutions?  Well it is difficult but there are a few. One is subcontract the entire work to a private company.  At times this works well, especially in large infrastructure projects where performance and milestones are relatively easy to define; and where foreign funding and companies are involved, which make them less subject to political interference.

In other cases it may be possible to bring in managers from the private sector but often bureaucrats tend to obstruct, or at times even actively sabotage, their work.   A relatively recent innovation is to set up “Delivery Units” – a small dedicated group of highly-skilled people assigned to help a set of projects of programmes achieve their objectives.

Their focus is on data-led decision making and they typically report directly to senior management, proposing solutions to untangle barriers. Staff for these units is usually recruited from among mid-career professionals working in the private sector on a contract basis.

These units work best when reporting to a strong senior management team which has decision making powers and is above bureaucratic infighting.  

Last, but by no means least, are the “Last Mile Issues”.  This refers to the challenge of making the connection between the lowest levels of project or programmes activities, and the individual households and communities who are the final targets of development work.

Thus a Government irrigation project may take water down to village level but then the water needs to get to individual fields. This requires famers to invest in local water conveyance and control systems, and create and manage water distribution schedules.

Similarly, a credit programme may enhance the supply of funds to the local bank branch, which may be a district or commune level. But then potential borrowers will need to be informed and, if they are unfamiliar with banking procedures, provided help to complete the necessary paperwork and chose the financing package best suited to their needs.  

There have been many attempts to address such last mile issues.  These include efforts by NGOs to build community organizations; efforts by Governments to extend the outreach of public institutions and initiatives; and, most recently, efforts by the corporate sector, as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities. 

All three approaches have had their success and failures. Their impact could be improved if NGOs, governments and the corporate sector talked more to each other about learning from these successes and failures and to seek synergies. 

Government programmes would certainly benefit from the social capital built up by NGOs and the management systems of the corporate sector.  NGOs would be more accountable if a greater proportion of their funding was channelled through Government and if they conducted the audits and financial and effectives reviews that are commonplace in large companies.

Similarly, the corporate sector’s CSR efforts would be more leveraged if they were to draw on Government staff, buildings and other facilities already existing in the areas where they work and on the community organizations developed by the NGOs.  

Daud Khan is a retired UN staff who lives partly in Rome and partly in Pakistan. He has degrees in economics from the LSE and Oxford – where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology.

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