Stakeholders in foreign-aided projects
Why is foreign-aided development superior to locally conceived and managed efforts?
Because it systematically, through an acultural results-based management process, overcomes problems that purportedly do not exist in one’s own foreign system!
I know several good chefs who know each other, in Erdenet and Ulaanbaatar. Each complains about slow business (often depending on the flow of expats), and not enough trained staff willing to accept low to modest salaries. So I asked them if they have ever thought of joining forces for economic advantage, and create a jointly owned and managed restaurant. Their answer: each works differently with staff, each has their own expectations and, although they know and respect each other, they feel that their respective working styles might be prohibitive to success.
So it is with participatory methodologies, they do not always turn out as envisaged. Most discussions about participatory development are well intended, but the number of discrete agencies — some never even conceived as needing to have a seat at the table -- replete with their unique agendas, are unable and at times unwilling to empathize with each other’s needs -- yet are knowingly putting themselves into a situation obliging close collaboration.
Now I am not referring to chefs from the same culture and profession, rather a more complex admixture of domestic and international multisectoral representatives who need to arrive at some consensus for an idea or an intended project.
To illustrate this complexity:
• The likely or actual executing agency might be a university, NGO, INGO or company, which itself has internal staff as well as certain outsourced specialists; the internal staff may have pressures to initiate projects in order to accrue profits from the inevitable overhead portions of budgets — sometimes to the detriment of “real needs”.
• The funding agency may be a foreign donor or an international financial institution or, in some cases, a private commercial concern; any of these actors could – and often are mandated to -- make decisions based on political and not actual beneficiary needs.
• Corresponding agencies in the host country may include one or more NGOs on the side of the likely or actual executing agency; and a government ministry through, which the funding agency may need to transact. The ministry may itself be acutely subdivided in its national, regional and district loyalties; and there are cases where the law allows a sub-national level to countermand or delay certain central level intentions.
• The beneficiary group is not too infrequently a microcosm of diverse socioeconomic, ethnic and other socio-cultural domains that clearly challenge the best communication efforts.
• Lastly, there may be the influence of political parties or other interest groups to contend with.
The results may often be that agencies aiming at improving the lives of beneficiaries are not properly communicating with each other because of diverse visions, intentions, modes of working, background pressures and — most importantly, different cultures. Participation, even if considered successful from the viewpoints of planning, implementation, evaluation and so on, rarely envelopes the whole development process itself; rather it addresses only certain phases, especially at the front end; thus what may be considered successful by the implementing body may not be similarly viewed by certain stakeholders in later stages of a project.
All of the above leads to a complexity that while emphasizing bureaucratic territoriality remains too distant from enabling the participatory reconciliation of debilitating social issues in development.
Local folks invited to or intending to participate at any stage of an outside idea involving their communities, often could use practical advice on how they ought to go about their internal determination of issues; their ensuing presentation of their main concerns; listening to and accepting the rationale behind other participants’ concerns; and inevitable need for accommodating some other participant, without surrendering to more vocal mainstream groups, which may strive to monopolize the exercise. Without adequate coaching or at least informing, less educated people may find themselves overwhelmed by “foreign fancy talk”. Illustratively, the WWF in Mongolia has a practical six-step process for enhancing the development herder groups. Tested and adaptable ideas from the scores of other NGOs and INGOs ought to be systematically shared.
Discussants who have previously partaken in participatory sessions, especially in foreign-implemented projects, have probably become familiar with the requisite jargon; but, often missing is the complementary cultural expertise to understand the nuances of each group, each sector, each political perspective and the benefits that are to purportedly accrue to the beneficiaries. Just as it is unrealistic to expect every stakeholder to understand expertly produced flow and pie charts, pictures and maps by project proponents, similarly it is impossible for non-local specialists, be they indigenous or foreign, to understand the nuances expressed by the (often rural) communities. And depending on the particular project plans, when stakeholders are denied an opportunity to increase understanding about a new plan, they could end up being displaced, denied access to certain areas, have even less control over local development than perhaps already experienced, and even experience a generally deteriorating life within the affected community.
On part of the funding and executing agencies, if a project does get underway, managers should be in regular contact with stakeholders so as to be better able to iteratively assess whether an original “coincidence of perspectives” is sustained; whether internal organizational goals have overtaken the original “understanding”; whether the project has been able to benefit from unforeseen but mutually advantageous opportunities; and whether the disparate and often fragmentary stakeholders could be steered through potential conflict. If one reflects on the inevitability that even within one’s own company, agency, government office or community there will arise conflicts, and that the solving of conflicts can be painfully long and at times ineffectual, it is not a stretch of the imagination to conclude that with disparate stakeholders of strategic partners, special interest groups, domestic and expatriate project staff, as well as of course collaterally affected people, it is a wiser choice to plan mitigation ahead of time. Yet most projects do not think of this, especially those who think that they know what is best for others and that the satisfaction of the stakeholders is only secondary.
Stakeholders may accept activities as being a priority when they are understood to be in their own best interests as well as in the best interests of the organization. It must also be acknowledged that priorities can change. For example, recreational and tourism activities in various soums have from time to time been prohibited because of wildfires or modified because of pest infestation; national budgets have had to be recalibrated because of major fluctuations in the value of extractives; infrastructural damage has at times impeded timely reconstruction; opening of the new 0.5 billion USD airport, planned to be operational in 2017 and then 2018, has been delayed until the end of 2019 “due to management issues”; and a major flood or dzud can totally disrupt planned work in any soum or province. Such circumstances call for flexibility not only by a beneficiary community, but as well by implementing agencies hooked on the linear, results-based management focus prevalent in western development circles.
One frequent misconception by donor, planning and executing agencies is the presumption that once some idea has been decided at a higher level it now need only a bit of shepherded stakeholder collaboration to justify the original plans. Of course, in some circumstances, communities have been able to defeat, alter or decelerate the implementation of projects insufficiently consulted; however, there are many other stakeholders that have been duped, cajoled or otherwise incentivized to agree to the proposals contrary to their resentment.
Stakeholder collaboration must be seen and practiced as a contemporary, beneficial obligation to maximize the chance for success of a project or other collaborative work, but the engagement of stakeholders can be optimal only with the consideration of locally evolved benign values, characteristics and practices.