Why Projects Fail (Or Why They Succeed)

bohol tribune column article

Why Projects Fail (Or Why They Succeed)

By Dr. Nestor M. Pestelos

With the advent of a new global development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals that the international community will pursue for a fifteen-year period, from 2016 to 2030, we are seeing signs of the rush on the part of national governments, their civil society and private sector counterparts, the latter with their corporate social responsibility units, to start identifying projects which can be funded under new financing packages to be made available by the UN member-countries.

As in the case of the previous global agenda, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there will be a race to prepare project proposals for submission to donors in anticipation of the financial resources available for each country. Providing safety nets for people in extreme poverty will require USD66 billion (Php 3.09 trillion) while improving infrastructure for water, agriculture, transport and power will cost a total  of USD 7 trillion (Php 327 trillion).

These estimates were from calculations made by the UN inter-governmental committee of experts on sustainable development financing. The committee is still debating where to get the money and, more importantly, how to forge partnerships more effectively to achieve financial targets under the SDGs.

No matter how the debates will amount to, the fact is that funds will be available for key activities and projects in efforts to meet agreed targets under the 17 goals.

This brings us to the subject of projects for which the bulk of the funds raised will be allocated in efforts to achieve the goals at various levels. Why think of projects?  According to development guru Dennis Rondinelli: “Projects are the basic building blocks of development. Without successful project identification, preparation and implementation, development plans are no more than wishes and developing nations would remain stagnant or regress.”

Basic stuff, of course. All of us know this fact ages ago, since that time we sit down on how we can address development problems. For many of us, as early as our sophomore years in college, we were taught the basics of writing project proposals to address key problems in development.  Our professors were so successful in doing so to the point that many of us think we cannot solve such problems without depending on outside sources of assistance. But that’s another story!

When I decided that I would write something about projects for this week’s column, I proceeded to google two topics:  why do projects fail, and; why do projects succeed. For the first query, I got more than two million results; for the second, more than five million! Well well, I settled for this piece by Prof. Rondinelli entitled “Why Development Projects Fail” as basic reference for this column on projects just to help situate planners and non-planner alike prior to what could be a mad rush for project identification and formulation in relation to the SDGs during the remaining months of  2015.

Prof. Rondinelli could say it better than myself. He has definitely a better chance of being listened to by those who read this column in Bohol:

“Recent assessments of development planning and administration, and of the lending practices of assistance agencies by international evaluation commissions highlight the importance of well prepared and executed projects.

“As critical leverage points in the development process, projects translate plans into action. As vehicles for social and economic change, they can provide the means of mobilizing resources and allocating them to the production of new economic goods and social services.

“The paucity of well- conceived projects is a primary reason for the poor record of plan implementation in many developing countries. The inability to identify, formulate, prepare and execute projects continues to be a major obstacle to increasing the flow of capital into the poorest societies.”

He adds:

“Despite more than a quarter of a century of intensive experience with project investment, international funding institutions and ministries of less developed countries still report serious problems in project execution. Many are due directly to ineffective planning and management. Analysts have found that most developing nations simply do not have adequate institutional capacity or trained personnel to plan and implement projects effectively.”

Prof. Rondinelli, who is Senior Fellow at the Technology and Development Institute of the East-West Center in Honolulu, cites former World Bank official Albert Waterson who says that in “one country after another … it has been discovered that a major limitation in implementing projects and programs, and in operating them upon completion, is not financial resources, but administrative capacity.”

Allow me to quote Prof. Rondinelli on this mismatch between the training given to project officers and staff of developing countries:

“Traditional approaches to public administration, it has been found, are of little value in preparing administrators from less developed countries for the complex tasks of planning and executing development projects.

“Conventional public administration training — based on legalistic, centralized, regulatory procedures — are not adequate to deal with the dynamics of change. Relatively little attention has been given to training administrators from developing countries in effective project management. The training that is available often takes a narrow focus, emphasizing economic appraisal rather than developing broader management skills and capabilities.

“Nor has much attention been given to formulating operational frameworks for viewing project management as an integrated system of elements and activities — identification, preparation, feasibility analysis, design, appraisal, approval, organization, operation, control, evaluation and follow up — requiring performance of skilled managerial functions throughout the project cycle.

“Literature abounds on methods of economic and financial analysis, network planning and work scheduling, but much less has been written and few training programs exist that expand the Knowledge and skills of administrators in project organizing, resource mobilization, complex decision making, problem solving, coordination and institution building. Selection and training of project staff and technical assistance personnel, identification and utilization of a wide range of non-economic resources have also been neglected.

“In many cases, project management practices used in advanced countries — those developed in defense, corporate R&D, and space programs — have been prescribed for increasing the implementation capacity of developing nations; an attempt has been made to install complex project management techniques and procedures.

Cultural, political and social traditions, in many cases, inhibit the use of American or European project management procedures. Even the most efficient multinational corporations undertaking new ventures in Third World countries find unanticipated crises arise continuously to obstruct the smooth execution of major projects.”

I agree with Prof. Rondinelli’s observations based on my direct implementation experiences with projects during the past forty years, particularly those funded by UNICEF, USAID, World Bank, UNDP, AusAID, CIDA, EU, Habitat for Humanity International in a total of sixteen (16) countries (Philippines, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Western Samoa, Palau, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Timor Leste, Cambodia, Malaysia , Indonesia, and Maldives).

In each of these countries, we organized as a key strategy for project replication a National Core Team of Trainers (NCTT) composed mostly of government officers and their NGO counterparts. We used training tools and methodologies from external donors. Always we ended up doing revisions to suit to local situations but some constraints, such as lack of resources and limited project duration, would prevent us to do a more substantial assessment of training impact on the results produced.

More importantly, despite heavy inputs on the importance of making projects sustainable, practically all projects ended as donor assistance withered away in another round of assessment workshops. At the end of this wrap-up process, there would always be the conclusion that the project was a success, which was more to accommodate the donor’s eternal quest for success stories. This is quite understandable knowing that the funds used are normally from donor countries of the UN and other international organizations.

Throughout the international development decades, and even during the time of the MDGs, I have yet to see continuity in projects within a legitimate replication phase. I can almost see the usual rounds of consultations and workshops to get the SDGs going and then the identification of new projects and I expect the old projects will just die a natural death, the genuine lessons in project planning and implementation buried in the memories of those who have been once part of its aborted flowering.

My suggestion is for our development colleagues in Bohol to take the new global agenda quite seriously, mobilize the precious human development assets, its sons and daughters who have spent their years “eating projects for breakfast,” as we always say, both on the domestic and international scene and motivate them to find an institutional home for their insights, tools and methodologies produced and engage them on  how best to take advantage of the global agenda to serve both the short-term and long-term needs of the province. Bohol is not that big a development stage and everybody knows who are these sterling personalities who can be relied upon to achieve a breakthrough in doing development in our midst.

Yes, it’s about time we resurrect the idea that perished when PPDO Head, Atty Nitz Cambangay, left the scene years ago. It’s about time we proceed to establish the Institute of Governance, Development and Culture that he dreamed about to ensure the continuity of plans, programs and projects rather than have only short-lived development initiatives in Bohol. Our people deserve a better and more worthy gift from the brightest and finest among its young people. For my part, I can only pray this happens before we reach our expiry date.

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