So what might ‘Beyond the Project’ Activities look like?

November 16, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Some thoughts in response to yesterday’s challenge from Brady Mott. What might replace the project? On one level, it’s a self-defeating exercise – any alternative is likely to require spending money, staff etc and some kind of accountability. Boom – we’re back to projects!

But some projects can loosen the kinds of constraints that Brady describes, getting away from the dead hand of The Plan, freeing change makers to be more innovative, to spot and surf promising waves etc etc. Here are three ways to do that – I’m sure I can rely on you to point out lots of others:

Core Funding

There’s a huge difference between ‘here’s some money, along with 23 key performance indicators, and a set of project milestones/millstones and reporting requirements, all decided in advance and immutable’ and ‘we like what you do, here’s some money. Use it as you see fit, but please tell us what you do with it.’ That latter version can happen at different levels:

Individuals: As I wrote in Fit for the Future 2.0 (haven’t got round to publishing it yet, so here’s the final draft: Fit-for-the-Future-2-final-July-2018), ‘Inspirational and talented leaders and change agents repeatedly resurface in different guises and projects. So why not shift to sponsoring potential or actual leaders directly, rather than obliging them to invent projects to access funding? Yes, we’re back to good old-fashioned scholarships, but with a radical edge (the 100 grassroots women changemakers scholarship fund?). Could we imagine a mentored scholarships programme, so you link a Southern based experienced changemaker to a promising novice? Link them to training providers?’ Check out the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grants for an existing high-end version.

Cash transfers, whether small weekly amounts or one-off big lump sums, are another increasingly popular way of cutting the project strings.

Organizations: Every organization looking for money to run its operations prefers core funding to projects. Core funding gives them the flexibility they need to be agile, respond to events, move money to where it’s needed etc.

The problem for those handing over the money is a mix of accountability and trust. The donor wants to be able to show where the money is going, and if trust is low, projects are also a way to tie the recipient down to doing particular things the donor thinks might be useful. Core-funding is more likely when there’s a long-established relationship between donor and recipient, or some institutional common ground (eg between members of the same faith network). How can we build the relationships and trust needed to reverse the decline in core funding?

Governments: The largest scale variety of core funding is General Budget Support, through which donors fund developing country government budgets, but leave spending decisions up to them. The benefits and risks are much the same as for other organizations, albeit on a grander scale. GBS has fallen out of favour of late, as aid donors worry about maintaining support for aid with their own publics, parliaments and media – the potential ‘DFID bungs money to dictators, no questions asked’ tabloid headlines weigh heavy on politicians’ minds. What might enable them to rebuild the case for GBS?

Positive Deviance

Regular readers will know this is (or at least, may be) my next thing. I won’t repeat all the arguments, but here’s the gist from the most recent PD post’, which got dozens of great comments from readers:

‘The starting point of PD is to ‘look for outliers who succeed against the odds’ – the families that don’t cut their daughters in Egypt, or the kids that are not malnourished in Vietnam’s poorest villages. On any issue, there is always a distribution of results, and PD involves identifying and investigating the positive outliers, and seeing if/how the lessons of how they did better than the rest can be spread. In the famous case in Vietnam, identifying slightly different feeding practices in outlier households led to big nutritional improvements for millions of kids.

This differs from the ‘standard model’ of aid in two big ways: it focuses on success, not failure/problems – places where the system has thrown up solutions to a given problem – and it replaces, or at least minimises, the role of ‘external interventions’ such as aid projects. Bye bye White Saviour complex/salvation by outsiders. For that alone, I love it!’

I’m still talking to people and reading stuff about PD, but some of the ideas that are being thrown up include whether PD might be particularly suitable for fragile/conflict places where nothing else works, and whether it is best applied to individuals, institutions or kinds of interventions (PD of projects!).

Outcome-Based Funding

There are market-led ways to rearrange incentives away from projects, by rewarding what aid wonks call ‘outcomes’ rather than insisting on particular project activities. If you achieve something, you get the money, and we don’t mind how you get there. Many of them have been cooked up and promoted by the Center for Global Development, achieving various levels of adoption by aid donors. I’m often sceptical about these approaches, (that’s a subject for a different post), but they all fit the criteria for ‘beyond the project’ innovation, with links:

OK, that’s a few ideas from me. What else you got?

November 16, 2018
Duncan Green