Monday, August 18, 2008

Turning Knobs and Pulling Levers from Canada

How could I have changed my project from Canada?

So my project is not perfect. There are a lot of challenges in implementing it based on the underestimated complexity of the community we are working in, the small scale of the market, the low income levels of many of the beneficiaries, the aggressive targets set in the project deliverables etc. Our entire team is working doubly hard to deal with these challenges and we are learning a lot from when things don’t work out as planned. All the same, just stepping back a little, I think if the project scope and expectations had been set a little differently, we would have been more set up for success. Extrapolating from my little experience with one little project and the few glimpses that I have had of other projects, here are some of my thoughts on what I could have done to set up my team for better success:

a. Funded a long-term project
Our project timeline is 6 months. 6 months in a country where the budget has not been passed for 8 months. 6 months for a project where we are trying to create a fundamental behaviour change by getting people to wash hands with soap that they save for laundry and bathing. 6 months to combat the 60-year old attitude of getting hand-outs and subsidies from development organizations.
6 months is more than enough to construct our project target of 1000 latrines. But if we want to do it using the market approach by creating a demand arising from sustainable behaviour change, 6 months is ambitious at best and dangerous more realistically. The good thing about it is that it keeps our team on its toes. But then again we have to make compromises some times to meet the deadline. For example, we wanted to build two demonstration toilets at the houses of people in the community and actually get the owners to pay for most of the cost. But being pressed for time, since we needed the toilets built in time for the marketing day, we did not have time to negotiate a good agreement with the owner. The result is that we paid for most of the cost of the toilets. This drained funds from other budget line items in our project, and is a deviance from our concept of no hand-outs. Of course in the beginning of any promotion, such compromises generally have to be made, but I think if we had planned properly (this is an internal organizational issue) and had not been so pressured for time, we would have got the owners to chip in more.

A demonstration latrine built by the masons trained by Hygiene Village Project.

I am now more in favour of supporting the longer term (~3 years) projects that target existing systems, create change in a fundamental manner, and are aggressive yet realistic in their approach. It’s hard to put your money into something that has such a slow rate of return. But I think it is a matter of finding an organization you can trust and setting your sights on a long-term long-lasting solution.

b. Demanded a comprehensive and well-budgeted Monitoring and Evaluation plan
We started our actual M&E planning last week, half-way through the project. Until now, we had a pretty casual M&E program that involved informal monitoring by field coordinators and inclusion of remarks and lessons learnt in their weekly reports. It’s not all that bad, but now I am seeing that we should have involved several members of the community as well as our stake holders in the M&E program and it would have been better executed if we had done it before. In fact it should have been part of the project design, before we even started execution.
And now that we are getting into the nitty-gritty of the M&E plan there all these costs coming for the field visits, the questionnaires, meetings that need to be organized etc. Some of these activities can be combined with other budget line items, but we still need a detailed and bigger budget for the M&E. Especially in a pilot project like ours, we really need to know what impact are we really having (1000 latrines is just a superficial indicator of success but tells us nothing about the real behaviour change), which parts of our approach are working and which are not. This will hugely influence the scaled-up project that will follow this project as well as other project that our partners will do.
And M&E doesn’t end with the project. We need to go back in a year and check on things, and again in another year. I would be really disappointed to find another non-functional Kwagwanji after the project is over.

So I now want to look more closely at what the monitoring and evaluation program of the NGO looks like and how much of the project budget is assigned to it, because more than the results of numbers of latrines they send me in their annual report, it is their focus on M&E that will tell me that they are actually working to create real change.

c. Demanded more partnerships with other local organizations
This is one thing that is emphasized by our funders and I think it is critical in achieving success in our project. Most people have already started to realize that development efforts cannot be focused on a single issue. Drilling a borehole for clean water needs to go hand-in-hand with sanitation and hygiene education. But for a project to be executed effectively, it is best if the efforts are shared between different partners based on their expertise. And the more local organizations you involve, the greater the chances of your project still running long after you have left the scene.
For example, as part of our project we had to empty the pits of the latrines in the Makata Primary School. Pit-emptying with a vacuum truck is not really Hygiene Village Project’s forte. So we called in the City Assembly who actually do this and got them involved in the project. Now they are looking into seeing how they can expand this to develop a plan to service all schools in the area on a regular basis.

NGOs naturally tend not to partner with each other due to competition for funding. But I wonder if as donors we emphasize partnership, perhaps we could motivate the NGOs to work with other local organizations who can eventually take on ownership of the projects long after the project funding has gone.

These are just a few thoughts based on what I have seen so far. If you have any other ideas on how people in Canada (or any other developed country!) could leverage their donations to ensure better development work on the ground, I would love to hear them!

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