PCDForum Column #11 Release Date April 12, 1991

by David C. Korten

A few years ago a major multi-agency study of foreign aid
observed that from two-thirds to three-fourths of development projects funded by official foreign donors are judged
by the donor to be satisfactory at the time project implementation is completed and the donor withdraws. Only
rarely do donors look at whether project benefits are in
fact sustained beyond their withdrawal. One of the rare
exceptions is a special study of 25 World Bank agricultural projects that were rated successful by the Bank at
time of project completion and then re-evaluated several
years later. The result: thirteen of the twenty-five successful projects were reclassified as failures because they did
not produce a continuing stream of benefits sufficient to
justify the investment.

Recognition that all too few development projects
produce lasting results has created considerable interest in
the “sustainable” project. The continued focus on the
project, however, ignores the extent to which the failure is
inherent in the project mechanism. Two exercises from a
health planning workshop I helped facilitate in Nigeria in
late 1970 illustrate the problem.

Early in the program a team of WHO consultants
presented a national primary health plan they had developed for the Nigerian government. Using ratios of required facilities and staff per thousand population they
determined the numbers of new primary health centers and
auxiliary health posts, and the exact numbers of new
health professionals required–without reference to
existing facilities or personnel. These new requirements
were then translated into a very large budget.

In a later session, workshop participants were divided
into three groups. Each group received a case scenario of
an actual Nigerian community and was asked to develop
a plan for addressing the community’s priority health
needs. The resulting plans called for such actions as
organizing volunteer labor to drain a mosquito infested
swamp, engaging religious leaders in support of health
education efforts, recruiting a local doctor to train indigenous practitioners, and improving a local mission hospital.
No one recommended the construction of a new health
facility or the hiring of any new medical staff.

 The WHO plan was well suited to presentation as a
donor funded project. It called for a standard set of new
resources, easy to detail in budgetary line items and
account for in project reports. At the same time it was
enormously wasteful, had no relationship to reality, and
made no attempt to improve the use of existing resources.
In contrast, the plans produced by the workshop participants identified processes aimed at mobilizing existing
resources to produce sustainable improvements in health.
This approach made their plans poorly suited to project
packaging for donor financing.

By definition a project is a self-contained activity
with a clear beginning, end, outcome, and resource
requirements. It is by nature insular and inward looking,
whereas sustainability depends on an outward orientation
focused on enhancing the ability of beneficiaries to control
and manage their own locally available resources to
produce a sustained flow of benefits for themselves. Such
an outward orientation represents a violation of accepted
project management practice, which assumes the project
manager has control of all relevant resources and is
accountable to the donor for their use. People or resources
beyond his control are not supposed to be his concern.

To have the required control, the essential project
resources must come from some external agency, with full
authority assigned to the project management unit. This
poses a fundamental dilemma. The greater the share of
total resources provided by the project and the greater the
project’s control over those resources, the less likely the
project will be to contribute to development of new
capacities to mobilize and use local resources on a sustained basis. As the emphasis on external resources and
accountability is inherent in the project mechanism, it is
not surprising that sustainable outcomes are rare.

The transfer of large blocks of money in project
packages–the business of the large official donors–seldom provides more than temporary benefits to contractors, suppliers, politicians, and bureaucrats. Engaging in
sustained people-to-people cooperation aimed at increasing local control, access to, and productive use of existing
resources is more naturally suited to voluntary development agencies–so long as they avoid becoming trapped
into replicating the incapacities of official donors.


David C. Korten is founder and president of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was prepared
and distributed by the People-Centered Development Forum.

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