02 / 1999
The project-programme tool is often criticised today but it is becoming more and more prevalent. Indeed, an increasing number of actors operate in the international aid networks, in particular via numerous Southern and Northern NGOs: they replace public administrative bodies and state companies. These actors receive most of their resources through co-funding from public agencies, which prescribe the project-programme instrument. On the other hand, this tool is rarely adapted to the activities of a farmers’ organisation.
A project document is a bridge. It represents a link between a group of villagers and a fund-providing organisation. But it often distorts the process. It tends to force people’s actual and potential initiatives into the rigid framework of the agency’s cost forecasts. Everything focuses around this money to come. Once the project is negotiated and implemented locally, its promoters seek the population’s support and involvement.
The aid system uses the project-programme tool simultaneously to forecast objectives and to evaluate a budget. Thereby, it compels all concerned actors to think and to act according to a deductive pattern: once the objective has been defined, its mode of implementation follows, monitoring measures and quantitative means are determined. Thus everything is planned beforehand. But in local villages, few actors fully master their actions and are able to control success factors and unexpected events. Rather than acknowledge these difficulties, the agency tries to ensure at the draft project stage the proper execution of the process. It feels secure once it has set deadlines, assessed budget provisions as well as accounting details and defined in advance Evaluation criteria and indicators - and planned to send in consultants to monitor periodic variances between forecasts and results.
Four reasons demonstrate how irrelevant it may be to apply the project-programme method to rural development.
* First of all, isn’t the forecasting of activities an uncertain and sometimes harmful tool?
It is surely uncertain when the person who does the forecasting does not have reliable and precise data. For example, how can one predict two or three years in advance, the manpower available in a Sahel village where most men are compelled to move to the city and find a temporary job if the harvest is insufficient? Forecasting implies that the forecasters pretend to know which needs people will consider a priority at a given time in the future. But when people are unorganised and barely manage to survive, do they have the means of forecasting these needs and the means required to meet them at a planned date?
Forecasting is sometimes harmful because what is planned will be budgeted and what is written in the budget cannot be easily allocated to other items when the time comes to spend the money. For instance if the young men in a village have to leave it when the money allocated to their market-garden is supposed to be spent, what should be done? Quite often, the donor insists that the project should be executed. And subsequently he is"surprised"that the investment is not sufficiently efficient.
* Second irrelevance: priority is often exclusively given to the external contribution in the project’s budget. At the survey stage of the project, the internal dimension of the execution process which includes the means contributed by people themselves (their labour, their savings, their know-how)are considered as mere complements. They are deemed secondary in relation to external assistance. The sheer volume of external assistance contributions, their delivery schedule and the form they take (loan, gift)constitute the carcass of the project-programme. The project tool merely incorporates the work of the recipients into an action which is dominated by the assistance provider. This is not meaning of"help"given by the French"Larousse"dictionary (« to join one’s efforts with those of someone »). Project budget preparation usually focuses on external means and does not sufficiently take into account the wide range of activities that people are liable to develop. However, the core of an action depends on those who execute it, on their concrete motivation. And the proper implementation of available means depends on their own will and ideas.
* Third flaw: Setting up a project can sterilise people’s own capacity to satisfy directly their immediate needs with the means at their disposal. It postpones (sometimes for a long time) the execution process which might otherwise have started immediately. Such delays are difficult to avoid when the planning process is vertical and oriented downwards.
Too often indeed, the project is the"pie in the sky"which discourages immediate implementation. When the group has to present a description and a budget before asking for a hypothetical support., the group’s energy is paralysed. People have to wait, they are stuck with a dream that de-motivates them: « Soon, we will receive support and that will solve our problem. » When officials say to people: « Express your wishes, determine how much they cost, and I’ll see what I can do"they tend to stifle their energy and discourage them from solving their problem with their own means, their own tools and know-how. Thus the project instrument is not well-adapted to an essential function of the assistance system: mustering other means than external resources.
* Fourth defect: it is difficult, within the framework of a project or programme, to support new activities: they can not be forecasted with a cost estimate; and if they are not presented in this manner, they are not financed.
Highlighting the irrelevant aspects of the project method does not mean that it is useless to prepare actions. Things that are fairly predictable, such as operating costs or training and consulting expenses, should be forecasted and tightly budgeted. But other aspects are not reasonably predictable such as the work atmosphere, people’s savings, their spirit of initiative. These essential dimensions should be decided through negotiations with the people concerned when the time to act has come, that is, when local resources are mustered.
Translated from French (see corresponding title)
[Written for the public debate « Actors and processes of the cooperation », which could feed the next Lome Convention (European Union/ACP countries relations). This debate, animated by the FPH, has been started by the Cooperation and Development Commission of the European Parliament and is supported by the European Commission.]
LECOMTE, Bernard, L’Harmattan (France)