The oxygen of frank debate: the 2014 portfolio under discussion

Like everyone, I went to some great sessions at the Global Staff Meeting. I met new people and heard new ideas. I also learned that IFAD is pretty good at discussing its difficulties. One of the richest sessions I took part in was on opportunities and challenges for the 2014 project portfolio, which brought together portfolio advisers, CPMs, technical experts, and regional directors and economists.

Discussion focused on two key elements that significantly affect IFAD-supported projects:
  • The implementation environment – over which we have no influence
  • Project startups – where IFAD has more control, and which are key to improving project performance.
Many people participated in the discussion, so I’m going to simplify my task by not attributing any comments or ideas by name. If I’ve misrepresented anything or you want to own your ideas or add to them, please post a comment at the end. Also, the discussion was so rich that it’s only possible to touch on the highlights in a short blog – or at least what struck me as the highlights.

The implementation environment
A matrix identifying 4 different types of implementation environment in APR was presented as a basis for understanding that environment and taking decisions accordingly at design phase. It categorized countries according to the strength or weakness of their central and local governments, and the strength or weakness of their civil society, including CSOs and the private sector.

Click on image to view full size.

The implementation environment is something IFAD has little control over. In a nutshell: ‘we have certain things we can’t do anything about’. (And as in that well known prayer, it’s important to know the difference between the things we can change, and those we can’t.)

The discussion that followed brought home the fact that IFAD works in a kaleidoscopic range of different environments – not all of which fit neatly into 1 of the quadrants. And because country contexts are so widely different institutionally, it’s difficult to replicate what we learn in 1 country in another.

It was suggested that a third dimension be added to the quadrants of different implementation environments – policy space. Policy space was likened to “a little window that opens and closes” offering opportunities to improve impact and project performance. Policy space provides the opportunity for IFAD to make its projects relevant to policy-makers and this creates potential for scaling up.

Capacity was then thrown into the mix as the cross-cutting issue influencing the implementation environments – human and technical capacity.

It was argued that the quadrant model should be taken into account from the design stage. Because you can have an excellent idea for a project but if you choose the wrong institutional arrangements, you’ll be fighting for years.

There were also differing views about whether we should be working only through governments, with some participants arguing that this is the way to sustainably strengthen institutional capacity. The point was made that working through NGOs or other “contractors” may not be sustainable over the long-term.

Several people argued for more flexibility in project design so that project teams can learn by doing and adapt goals and objectives during implementation where there is a need. The case was made that because we now directly supervise nearly all of our projects, we are in a position to be more flexible.

Project management units were another issue where country differences were extreme. Some governments appoint government staff, others insist that we recruit from the private sector – meaning that we lose the expertise when the project closes. Sometimes government PMUs are managing scores of projects and it’s difficult to get their attention.

There was broad agreement that grant financing could be effectively used for capacity building in government institutions and outside.

Project start-ups: maintaining momentum
The session then focused on project start-ups and once again there was a wealth of different opinions and experiences. Some statistics show that the speed of project start-up is a determining factor in performance. Slow start-ups lose momentum and enthusiasm and you can’t get back lost time. The time lapse between project approval and entry into force – when projects have fulfilled conditions so they are able to disburse – ranges from 5 to 16 months. “That’s a lot of time wasted.”

The time between the first and second disbursement is also a significant statistic showing how well a project is progressing. In the weakest projects it can be close to three years.

It is also important for us to know how project managers and PMUs view our start-up procedures. Indeed, ESA is carrying out a survey to find out the leading causes of early implementation delays – asking questions like: Do we provide adequate support? Are start-up workshops adequately delivered? Is documentation clear? IFAD’s aim is to optimize support in the first 15 months of a project’s life span.

Comments from other participants suggested that delay in start-up is not always directly linked to weak performance further down the track. This was said to be the case in LAC, where start-up delays were marked, but not necessarily related to the quality of the project.

There was a plea for divisions to allocate more resources to improve project start-up. Delayed recruitment of staff was one example cited. Starting work with the project team in parallel with the design phase was one suggested solution.

One intervention went to the heart of many of the issues being discussed: it is regrettable that we are starting up and closing down in countries where we’ve been working for years, with higher transaction costs every time we do it and a multiplicity of PMUs. Should we favour the country programme approach to break this cycle? The way we work now is like repeatedly constructing the first floor in a building. In addition, PMUs drain the best staff from government ministries, effectively weakening the institutions we are meant to strengthen.

There was general agreement that it’s important to do a lot more during design, including finalizing project implementation manuals by building on what already exists. There was also a suggestion that specific funding should be identified for this work.

Having thoroughly taken on board the message that every country context is different, I then went to the SKD session and heard that the forces of globalization are influencing what happens in every country and that commonalities are emerging. But that’s another story …