THE SUSTAINABLE PROJECT: A CONTRADICTION

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.

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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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