In the event that something goes badly wrong in an international development project, what happens and who is accountable?

In my previous blog in this series, I speculated about the potential legal risks of the newly proposed paradigm involving public-private partnerships in development projects. One way to deal with this risk issue that has been adopted in other professions, is a strong linkage between education and professional licensing (e.g. engineering or medicine). A licensed development practitioner would then have the authority to take legal responsibility for their development work. This may require the training and field experience expected of development workers to be better harmonized with the international best practices in the sector. Interestingly, a large part of the recommendations in the recent Foreign Affairs and International Development Standing Committee report to CIDA is for staff to be better trained for more effective management of public-private partnerships.

Currently, international development and aid personnel have as broad a range of expertise and CVs as the development projects that they work upon. Graduate degree levels of qualification are not uncommon and allow those with limited work experience to enhance and expand their skills, gain exposure to other areas and reflect on more esoteric subjects, such as policy issues. The interdisciplinary nature of the field also allows easy access from related disciplines, such as social science, law, health and economics, etc. There are also a large group of people in the sector with less formal backgrounds, but having significant work experience; indeed, an overly academic background is viewed by some as a disadvantage. It is fair to say that people working in international development are a rather eclectic bunch.

Currently, in the event that something goes badly wrong in an international development project, what happens and who is accountable? Well, certainly NGOs stop getting funding and they also suffer greatly from bad press (at a local level and with donors). Beyond that though, unfortunately not much else will happen and this is predominantly due to there being few legal and regulatory frameworks available to hold NGOs to account. Since many NGOs also have limited assets, it is not surprising that the pursuit of legal compensation for losses (often from outside of the NGO’s host country and with very little support for communities to engage in such a process) is rarely attempted. In a public-private partnership however, a multi-national company engaged in such an endeavor may seem a far more inviting target – surely an incentive for more effective means of risk management?

What if we propose a more rigorous framework of education (leading to licensure) for development workers? This will not necessarily lead to dramatically increased success rates, but legal accountability is a significant driving force and improvements would be anticipated. Also, compensation would now be tied into a more rigorous legal and regulatory framework and would have a recognized series of metrics on which to base the typical behavior of development workers and the outcomes of projects.

So, what attributes of individuals will be required? Certainly there are specific characteristics that we tend to expect in our colleagues and there is a list below of possible skills and knowledge. As you read these, consider the following – do these attributes encompass all that we will need in the future and align with the development and aid world that may appear beyond the MDGs? Can we teach all of these attributes or are some of them essentially character traits?

1. Cross-cultural effectiveness:

  • commitment to learning local language(s)
  • sensitivity and respect for cultural, sexual, religious, ideological and ethnic diversity
  • willingness to learn
  • adaptability and ability to deal with ambiguity
  • humility
  • empathy and caring for others
  • understanding the specific attributes/culture(s) of the host country

2. Good problem solving skills:

  • ability to transfer and adapt skills and knowledge to a local context
  • ability to work with existing/limited resources
  • creativity and a drive for innovation and excellence
  • realistic expectations of change and the time periods required
  • flexibility, resourcefulness and resilience

3. An understanding of the history of ID:

  • understand the different approaches to ID and the evolution of the industry
  • know what works and what doesn’t!

4. Leadership skills and experience in a leadership role:

  • lead by example
  • good organization
  • delegate effectively
  • take ownership and responsibility
  • good listener
  • know your team well
  • personal and professional commitment
  • excellent interpersonal and communication skills

5. Technical or hands-on experience in your area:

  • specific skill(s) or expertise – it is important to contribute something

6. Community development skills:

  • consultation and facilitation
  • conflict resolution
  • research, planning and evaluation
  • results based management
  • attributes 1-5 above

If we were able to align these attributes with training and educational curricula and organizations, then we could envisage future development projects being ‘signed-off’ by a senior (licensed) individual, who will assume the legal responsibilities for the work and the team. Of course there is a danger that development will become more risk averse and less challenging projects with higher potential for positive outcomes will become the norm. But maybe this will happen anyway if development failures begin to appear in the courts with public-private partnerships intimately involved.

Do you think we should pursue accreditation of qualifications and field experience with a view to professional licensure in the development sector? How would this work across international boundaries? If you have any opinions, please feel free to comment.