Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Projects versus Project Funding Mechanisms

Over the last few years I have had some involvement with the M&E of three project-funding mechanisms. One in the UK, one in Australia and one in south Asia. In all three cases almost all the thinking about the assessment of performance was focused on the analysis of the individual funded projects, along with some syntheses studies that were designed to make some more aggregate assessment of the results of particular categories of projects. The amount of attention given to the assessment of the project funding mechanism varied from a modest amount to none at all. I think this is almost the reverse of what should be the case.

All funding mechanisms that involve calls for proposals and then use a screening process to assess those proposals have in effect a theory of what makes a viable project. In as much as the people reviewing proposals feel they can rate some proposals as better than others then they probably also have a theory of what makes a good project, and a not so good project. These theories will be in the form of a view of what bundle of attributes, discussed during the review process, make the most difference to how successful a project is, in the short and long term. In an ideal world feedback from project-level monitoring and evaluation activities would lead to refinement of these theories about good projects, and this would be evident in changed selection criteria for accepting and funding project proposals. The funding mechanism would get better and better at spotting and funding good projects. In reality I have never seen this sort of feedback link in operation. At least in explicit form.

There are some broad types of theories that would be well worth testing, because they have some identifiable and significant consequences. One is supported by some prior experience. That is, it has been found that it is not the details of the proposed project activities, but the nature of the implementing partner that is what makes a difference between good and bad, or mediocre project outcomes. If this is true it could prompt a substantial re-weighting of emphasis in many project selection procedures, away from a focus on project activities and towards assessment of the project holding organisation. Another possibility is that there is in fact no significant correlation between how well proposals fit selection criteria and their subsequent performance. One possible response to these findings would be to slim down the project selection procedure and to intensify project monitoring and ongoing capacity building of funded projects.