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Diplomats vs Project Management

July 11, 2013

While the UK government is struggling to spend 0.7% of GNI on ODA it’s also trying to manage the political downside of this partly through creating something called the Independent Commission on Aid Impact that reviews aid programmes.   It’s done a couple of interesting reports on ODA work by the FCO.  There’s a recent one on FCO and British Council Aid Responses to the Arab Spring and one from last year on the Evaluation of the Inter-Departmental Conflict Pool.

The latter report is interesting because it puts its finger on a couple of features of modern statecraft.

The first thing is that a lot of what diplomats from big countries do isn’t actually diplomacy as it’s traditionally defined.  I would understand diplomacy as being about the maintenance of relationships.  It’s a continuing process.  What is happening with the programmes discussed in these reports is project management.  There’s a pot of money diplomats put in a proposal to bid for it, it gets assessed by a board (for the academics out there this may seem a bit familiar!) they get the funding,  execute it with local partners and that’s it.  Hopefully the project fulfils its goals, there’s policy benefit and the local partners are happy.   Of course this is how the aid community works.

The ICAI thinks that that the FCO (and the BC) do a pretty good job and sounds a bit surprised about how good they are at some aspects of this work.  They think that the FCO is good at identifying project partners, ‘encouraging them to develop their programmes in useful directions’, providing support on ‘problem analysis and activity design’, ‘building relationships of trust’ .  I think that this is exactly what you would expect diplomats to be good at.  Of course there are downsides.  The diplomats aren’t so good at project management and the FCO doesn’t have the financial systems for managing this work so there has to be an improvised solution.*  They also need to have proper theories of change – this is something that I’ve been advocating for a while.

The other point which has been rattling around at the back of my head for a while but which I’ve never seen discussed before is the fit between this project based mode of working and strategy.  There are several issues here

  1. The Conflict Pool has lacked a good strategic framework so that there’s been an element of funding projects independently of whether they will provide overall strategic benefits.
  2. Discussing the programme of work in Pakistan the report notes that ‘the programming generally lacks the scale or intensity required for substantial impact’.  I think that this is an issue that doesn’t just apply to this particular programme – I think that it’s also true of much US PD.  There’s a pot of money for activities and we use it to finance projects regardless of whether we can actually achieve an objective.
  3. If you’re working through partners what happens if you can’t find the right partner to match your objective?

“A major challenge in Pakistan has been identifying credible implementing partners.  This in turn limits the strategic choices available.  We noted that there are a number of objectives in the Conflict Pool strategy for Pakistan that are yet to be matched with convincing partners and activities.  This challenge also means that the Conflict Pool has  a tendency to continue working with its established partners each year, even where their activities are not highly strategic.”

This kind of project based working is fashionable it’s supposed to respond to local initiatives and tap into local expertise, you’ll get local ownership and so on.  But I think we have to be realistic about the results and payoffs.  Sometime what you can do isn’t what you need to do.  This also connects to the critiques of NGOs in democracy assistance that I discussed here.

*In fact one of the take aways from these reports is that the FCO needs to be more like DFID, diplomats need project management skills etc. This is a perfectly good point but this does strike me as a bit ironic as DFID used to be part of the FCO – might it make more sense to put them back together rather than turn the FCO in a junior DFID?

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