Blog / DevLearn Digest 12: The problem with projects
21 March 2024

DevLearn Digest 12: The problem with projects

DevLearn Digest 12: The problem with projects

Hi all,

We start with two exciting training announcements. Firstly, there are still places available for our May online training courses on Market Systems Development and Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning. We’ve been revising and improving the content, with topics including working in conflict, artificial intelligence, and what my grandmother can teach us about assessing attribution. Please share the links with any friends or colleagues who might be interested. 

Secondly, we are considering an advanced training course on market systems development. This is aimed at people who have taken our course (or an equivalent) and have practical experience of implementing the MSD approach. We’re just exploring whether there is a market for it – would you be interested? If so, please let us know by completing this form

Before we get into this Digest topic, here’s a response to our previous DevLearn Digest:

Hi – I’m Rachel Shah – friend and colleague of Adam and the team at DevLearn, and co-leader of the MSD4E Community of Practice. Did the questions about MSD4E in the last newsletter resonate with you? Despite my involvement in all things MSD4E, in many ways they did with me – and indeed, many of them are the very questions we’re wrestling with in the MSD4E COP. I’m a skeptic at heart myself – but like DevLearn (and, presumably, readers of this newsletter) I’m also keen to find ways through the tangly mess to something that we can usefully put into practice. If that sounds like you, join us in the COP. We need all the minds and experience we can get on these employment conundrums!

Do you have any thoughts or responses to the current DevLearn Digest? Email them to us, and we’ll consider inclusion in the next Digest. And now, on with the main content. 

DevLearn Digest 12: The problem with projects

Years ago, I was told by the founder of a small charity that their aim was to work themselves out of a job. The idea was that, by building local capacity, systems and resilience, the charity would get to the point where its support was no longer required. At the time, this struck me as profound advice. It appealed to my sense of idealism and seemed to highlight the importance of sustainability in our work.

I wasn’t the only one impressed. Ambitions for sustainability, localisation, and capacity building have permeated much of the development sector, even if few organisations know how to achieve them in practice. The idea of ‘working yourself out of a job’ reaches its logical conclusion in the widespread use of ‘projects’ as the key method of delivering development assistance. The important point about a project is that it has a definite end-date. You have a certain amount of time to achieve the desired change – and at the end of it, you will very literally be out of a job.

Now I’m older, possibly wiser, and definitely more cynical, I have changed my mind. The aims of most development organisations are simply too big, ambitious and complex to be achieved in any realistic sense. And by funding projects rather than organisations, the sector is not showing a humble recognition of the importance of sustainability, but naivety about the challenges of effectively changing systems.

Let’s take the example of Katalyst – a widely respected project that ran for fifteen years. It benefitted well over a million farmers and small enterprises in Bangladesh, and influenced market systems development practice around the world. It’s about as successful as a project can be. But at the end of fifteen years, after spending over $100 million, can we say that it had achieved its ‘job’? Is the Bangladeshi economy resilient and vibrant, have they eradicated poverty and inequality? Of course not. Katalyst could have kept going for another 10 years – or 20, or probably 100 – because its ‘job’ is not something that can be achieved.

Instead, it was shut down. All its organisational knowledge, reputation, and relationships vanished. All the good interventions it could have launched, and the economic benefits it could have created, disappeared. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t closed for any particularly good reason. Our sector has just decided that it is better to fund time-limited projects than invest in permanent organisations, Katalyst hit the limit, and so it had to go.

Projects often strike me as an arrogant form of development. They assume that the problems we work on are tractable, and that given a certain amount of time (and money) they can be fixed. As all practitioners know, that’s just not true. Economic development in Bangladesh will not be solved by any single project (or even multiple). Neither will healthcare in Ghana, investment in Ethiopia, conflict in Kenya, or social care in the UK. 

Projects also come with very real transaction costs. Project proposals are typically written with a surprising disregard for the real-life challenges of setting up and managing institutions with a multi-million dollar budget. Teams need to be hired and trained. Systems set up and institutionalised. Culture established. Relationships built. In my experience, the first three years of a project are consumed with building an effective organisation. In the last year, staff are worrying about their jobs and wondering what comes next. If you set up a four year project, then it will be running at full effectiveness for approximately none of those years. This is no reflection on the skills of those working in project management – just a recognition that setting up, scaling and managing institutions is extremely difficult. 

To manage these transaction costs, we have an infrastructure of global organisations with the capacity, expertise and resources to manage projects effectively. International NGOs and consultancy firms can set up a project in any sector, anywhere in the world – whether education in Tajikistan or private sector development in Malawi. But the scale and flexibility that enables this model also reduces the local footprint or accountability for these organisations, potentially disconnecting development from those it’s expected to serve.

There is a (relatively) simple solution to all this. Just stop funding projects. Instead, fund public and private organisations. Katalyst should have been an independent institution, registered in Bangladesh, able to seek money from any source it wanted, and with no requirement to close after fifteen years. Funding shouldn’t be given unconditionally, but core funding should be provided for long periods of time, and reviewed based on organisational achievements rather than project goals.  

The world is constantly changing, and organisations need to change with it. Nobody will work themselves out of a job, but all institutions need to question their mandate and strategy, and what their ‘job’ is will evolve over time. We need a world where organisations that do this successfully are rewarded with additional funding and support – not one where everyone leaves at the expiration of an arbitrary timeframe.

Adam and the DevLearn team