The August 2012 edition of Project Management Journal had a research paper in it about why international development projects are failing in Africa. The lessons could be useful to other projects in different environments too. Lavagnon A. Ika, a researcher from the University of Ottawa in Canada, picks out 4 reasons why projects fall into development traps and ultimately run the risk of failure. These are: 


The researcher concludes that international development projects suffer from the same problem as many projects elsewhere – the project management approaches used are prescriptive and don’t allow for flexibility. Standard procedures that must be followed regardless of the size and objectives of the project, such as those in use at the World Bank, mean that project managers lack the ability to work flexibly and tailor methods to suit the local environment. 

Partly this is due to the fact that the charity model that funds many international development projects means that accountability and visibility are key. Structured approaches provide this level of accountability through gate reviews, rigorous planning using tools like Seavus Project Viewer and financial management. This is great, but it can stifle the social and cultural elements of getting a project done. 


Accountability for results

“There is too much emphasis within aid agencies on strong procedures and guidelines, which leads to a culture of ‘accountability for results’ and of little attention to ‘managing for results’,” writes the researcher.

Again, this comes down to the procedures in place to manage projects. The need to show how funds from donors have been spent overrides the need to actually make progress towards achieving the project’s deliverables. The researcher argues that there is too much weight put on incentives for project managers to report externally and to spend time on monitoring and evaluation. There is not the same level of incentive for a job well done, and project managers lack the tools they need for using project performance data to make decisions that will affect progress. 

Lack of project management capacity

The researcher concludes that not much has changed in the last 40 years and that there is a lack of project management capacity in international development projects. I believe this is changing with certifications like PMD Pro but change is slow. Getting good people trained in project management is one thing, but the researcher also points out that some African countries lack the infrastructure to support projects, even if they did have skilled and experienced project personnel. Working in some areas of Africa means facing challenges like political instability, lack of infrastructure, difficult physical environments, scarce resources and low levels of education and skills. All of these means that aid agencies struggle to deliver projects effectively – and they are just as pressed, if not more so than other organizations to cut costs and reduce administrative overheads. 

Cultural issues

The top-down approach that many donor-funded projects take is contrary to a model that supports success. In other words, swooping in with charity funds to deliver a project doesn’t result in strong local commitment to the project. These projects can be seen as being managed by outsiders, so there is little interest in them from the local community and they may not take local culture and sensitivities into account. 


It strikes me that none of these project management challenges are limited to Africa, or to international development projects. While they may be more pronounced in these settings (although the research does not suggest this), I am sure that many projects around the world suffer from the same constraints and challenges as identified here. 

How to solve these problems?

Ika picked out these 4 reasons why projects fail and also discusses in the paper what could be done to address these challenges. As I think these challenges are more prevalent than just in international development projects in Africa, it’s worth looking at how we can address them in case there are lessons here for other projects in different settings. 

So let’s see what Ika has to say about breaking the traps that projects fall into. 

How to fix ‘One-size-fits-all’

The researcher concludes that international development projects should refrain from using rigid methodologies and adopt methods that allow for more flexibility. Focusing on the political aspects of projects will help, as structured methods often assume that organizational politics are not present in project management – and as experienced practitioners will know, that’s very far from the truth. 

Hybrid models that are context-specific and allow the local project team to tailor the approach are the best way forward. 

How to fix ‘Accountability for results’

“Project management for ID [international development] should refocus on managing objectives for long-term development results and shy away from its emphasis on visible, short-term outcomes and efficiency,” writes the researcher. In other words, management by results approach would do well. Projects could also benefit from including the Millennium Development Goals and from using key success criteria. Rough estimates are more useful than fully documented business cases, and these should focus on the parts of projects that deliver the most benefit. 

Focus on putting most management oversight around the areas that deliver the most value ad that requires it, and use judgment as to whether strict reporting protocols are necessary on all elements of the project. Ika also suggests that there should be incentives for project managers to take risks as well as avoid them and that bureaucracy for the sake of it should be avoided in exchange for a results-based environment. 


How to fix ‘Lack of project management capacity’

Supervising projects effectively is key to their success, and Ika suggests this is even more important in situations where international development projects are taking place after conflict or war. Increasing supervision in countries with poor policies is one of the recommendations: Ika points to the fact that there is less supervision in countries that are perceived to be weaker and more in countries that are perceived to be stronger. Reversing this is one way to ensure more international development projects are given the chance to succeed. 

Ika also recommends that aid agencies include more people with project management skills on staff. It is a skill set to be learned and developed, so moving away from the model of using ‘accidental project managers’ and increasing the amount of ‘professional’ project managers is another way to increase success rates for international development projects. 

How to fix ‘Cultural issues’

You can’t fix culture, and you shouldn’t want to. Instead, project management approaches should be tailored to fit with values and culture. In countries where culture is markedly different to that of the West, where many project management approaches were developed and honed, this becomes even more important.

Ika recommends that their methods are tailored to manage a strong need for political and community demands on project resources and to cope with powerful hierarchies. Stakeholder management is critical to ensure that political requirements are met and that the local communities are brought on board. Reward and recognition systems can differ from culture to culture, so don’t assume that what works in one setting will automatically work in another, as people can be motivated by very different things. “There is a need for an African project management approach that is tailored to African values, cultures, and sociality,” writes the researcher. 

While all of these challenges, and potential solutions, have been discussed in the context of international development projects in Africa, they are likely to have a much wider impact. This research shows us that while there are some challenges that are inherently local, at a macro level, many of the challenges facing project managers are universal. 

How do you deal with methodology, accountability, capability and culture challenges on your projects? Let us know in the comments.