THE PAPER | Project Management in Development Aid Industry

THE PAPER | Project Management in Development Aid Industry

By Dragana Simović
Doctoral student at the Department of Economics and Social Sciences,University of Potsdam

THE PAPER | Project Management in Development Aid

Image Attribute: Smiling Young Child From Africa | by Espen Faugstad , flickr/ Creative Commons

The central question of project management research since the late 1960s, regardless of the field in which the findings could be applied, attempted to answer the following question: What factors contribute to the success of a project? 

In addition to that, how can we know if a certain project is successful; namely, what criteria can we use to measure project success? Although the development aid industry is dominated by project-type interventions, it benefited from project management knowledge rather late. Some of the research from the late 1990s argued that, despite the difference between international development projects and “hard-type” projects, the solution to the most common problems in development aid is to learn the basics of project management and apply them in this specific context (Youker 1999). This traditional view has been challenged by some more recent research calling for more industry specific issues and challenges (Carden & Egan 2008), which has led to some initial findings about industry-specific factors contributing to project success in the development aid industry.

Another debate in management literature which is of importance for this research is whether management practices can be evaluated as good or bad, or whether every management practice is contingent (Woodward 1958). Supporting findings from Bloom et al. (2011), the author starts from the assumption that there is a basic set of management practices which contribute to better outcomes. The goal for now is to identify these practices (dimensions) while in the later phase of research they will be elaborated and specific measurable indicators for each dimension will be created. This will enable the assessment (from good to bad), the measurement, and comparison of project management practices in development aid.

Finally, of the highest importance for this entire research-project is the general belief that management matters for overall performance and project effectiveness. The various reports found (O’Toole & Meier 2003; Nicholson-Crotty & O’Toole 2004; O’Toole & Meier 2004) that although it is not the only determinant of performance, it is a very substantial one. This means that, if we are able to operationalize management practices in a way that they could be measured, it gives us a possibility to compare these practices in different projects while they are in their implementation phase and see which type of project delivery achieves a higher quality of management on average. Based on that we can assume which projects are more likely to perform better and deliver more effective aid.

In these efforts, it must be acknowledged that the development aid field differs from other traditional fields of applying project management knowledge. A short review of the literature outlining the uniqueness of the international development field compared with traditional projects reveals the following:
  • Project goals: Project goals in development aid are usually connected to social transformation and human development which makes project performance measurement notionally complex (Crawford & Bryce 2003);
  • Strong political component: development aid projects contain a very strong political component due to specific impacts of aid interventions (Britton 1998);
  • Environment: development aid projects usually take place in an environment of diverse and even contradictory expectations which makes traditional project management approaches less appropriate, and where flexibility in decision-making plays a very significant role for project success (Blunt 1992);
  • Multiple stakeholders: international aid projects are characterized with a very complex web of many stakeholders (Khang & Moe 2008).

Once the main characteristics of the industry have been specified, a further challenge consists of finding out which aspects or dimensions of the management process actually carry performance implications.

In order to identify those project management processes and practices that might lead to better outcomes in this specific industry, the author has started from 10 management knowledge areas as defined by A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (Project Management Institute 2000): project integration management, project scope management, project time management, project cost management, project quality management, project human resource management, project communication management, project risk management, project procurement management, project stakeholders management. These areas help as a starting point, but not all these knowledge areas are of equal importance in aid industry.

Some significant empirical research concerning elements of project management that determine organisational performance and project success in development aid have already been conducted. So far we know that there is a direct correlation between project success and use of monitoring and evaluation tools (Ika, Diallo & Thuillier 2010) and that most prominent critical success factors for the World Bank projects are project design and project monitoring (Ika et al. 2012). It should be pointed out that although project design has been identified as one of the important factors contributing to project success, it will not be included in the operationalisation of project management practices as the organisations implementing the aid often do not have the official power to influence the project design. As it is outside their field of action, it would not be fair to punish/reward the organisations for something that they have absolutely no influence on.

Furthermore, in order to operationalize the concept of project management processes, as needed in this research, besides PMBOK knowledge areas and empirical findings on industry-specific success factors, the author has reviewed the literature determining project management success factors knowledge stemming from general management literature. Based on that, it is possible to identify four components which help the operationalization of the term project management process, as needed for this research:
  • Information management system – is a standardized set of automated tools available within the organization and integrated into a system used to support the need for information (PMI 2013). The most commonly used management information system in development aid is the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system. There is generally a wide agreement that M&E should form an important component of any aid project, and the rhetoric concerning M&E affirms this view, the practice of M&E appears to oppose it (Crawford 2004). Therefore it is of great importance for the management of a development aid project to have a well-functioning M&E system.
  • Stakeholder management system – project stakeholders are individuals and organisations that are actively involved in the project, or whose interests may be affected as a result of project execution or project completion. In development aid, the most important project stakeholders are final project beneficiaries. General project management literature has identified client consultation as one of ten project success factors (Pinto & Slevin 1987) whereas in the development aid field effective consultation with stakeholders and strong local ownership of the project are identified as critical success factors. The Paris Declaration also defined ownership as one of five principles for making aid more effective (High Level Forum 2005), and there is a general consensus that development aid projects cannot be successful without strong involvement of project beneficiaries, who are also of great importance for the sustainability of development aid projects.
  • Team-leader – besides the general acceptance that knowledge, competence, personal characteristics and behavior of a team leader form a significant success factor within any industry, industry specific research done for the development aid industry confirm his/her importance (Steinfort 2010).
  • Knowledge management system – knowledge management is the process of converting raw information into relevant knowledge and using this knowledge to achieve the aims; it is of great importance for organizational performance and organizational learning. Roche (1999) argues that it is of central importance for the international cooperation field.

About The Author:

Dragana Simović is a doctoral student at the University of Potsdam, the Department of Economics and Social Sciences. As an associate student she participates in the Research Training Group on “Wicked Problems, Contested Administrations: Knowledge, Coordination, Strategy” (WIPCAD). She graduated with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Political Science (International Relations Department) from the University of Belgrade, and gained a Master of Arts degree in European and European Legal Studies from the Europa-Kolleg Hamburg, Hamburg University. She has three years of experience working on development aid projects in Serbia, financed by different donors. Her research interests focus primarily on development aid, its effectiveness, practices and consequences. Her current research project assesses the effects of contracting out and competition on the quality of project management in development aid, and is funded by the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation.

This article is an excerpt from a research paper, titled – “Project Management in Development Aid Industry – Public vs. Private” published at Croatian International Relations Review, Volume 21, Issue 72 (Feb 2015), under Open Access/ Creative Commons License.

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