The list of things that can go wrong with an NGO project is fairly broad – people often cite natural disasters, conflict, political interference and a long list of etcetera’s. Without doubt, NGO Project Managers do work in difficult circumstances – no question. We work in places, where many other organisations would not or could not operate – yet – it is always a surprise to see how much blame is attached to external circumstances. My personal favourite is when the rainy season gets fingered – so we didn’t know that the rains were going to come? I am being slightly facetious but I think we owe it to our beneficiaries to focus a bit more on the many internal causes of problems – rather than external factors that way, in any case, be much more difficult to control.

This takes me to Grand Designs – a title from a UK TV series. The programme finds people, who want to design and build a new house – and as you can probably guess from the title, these are ‘special’ houses in some way – eco-friendly, woodland cottage, converted castle, houseboat or whatever. The format is always pretty similar – all obstacles are overcome, the final house is beautiful – but time and cost have gone out of the window. Occasionally, people can’t afford to finish….

Sound familiar? How many of our NGO projects are ‘grand designs’? I really did one see a programme objective that stated that ‘all debt in Africa will be pardoned/condoned by the end of 2007’. Really? I once reviewed a country programme that left me wondering why we were still working in the country. If we had done all that we has said (promised?), then it was surprising that there was any poverty left in the country. Women had been empowered, livelihoods increased, Govt. policies were all focused on the poor etc. Is this just my experience? I doubt it but I would love to know.

So what are the implications of the unachievable project? It is easy to think of probable failure, delays, extra money needed etc. i.e. problems with the triple constraint of time, cost and scope. This is almost certainly correct. There will be major issues with probably all of these. However, what about the human side of things? How do staff feel when they are working on a project that no-one believes can succeed? What about the funders? They have given us money to do deliver work, that we cannot achieve right from the start….. not sure I would fund a workman, who promised much but did not deliver…. Finally, how about the beneficiaries and communities? They have invested their hopes in us – but we cannot realize their expectations – and if we are honest and review some of our unrealistic proposals, we always knew we could not achieve the project goals.

The way funding operates in the sector does encourage us to over-promise in our proposals and when there is a major separation between those writing grant applications and the people who have to deliver, this problem can be even greater. We can see, however, the consequences of having an aspirational ‘grand design’ – so what can we do to avoid this? I would be interested to hear your experiences and I will come back to this in future blogs – and synthesize people’s ideas and offer some of my own.

Posted at LINGOs Project Services

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