When I set out on this project, my goal was to identify techniques for collecting and processing feedback from the “ground-up,” utilizing the wealth of crucial information stored in the local people who the World Bank attempts to help with its projects. I expected to find basic skills that would rely on emerging technologies, like the Internet, smartphones, and satellite data, which would give the World Bank, and me, a leg up in its pursuit of better feedback collection.
What I found in my case studies, however, was far more simple. While new technologies do indeed enable powerful new techniques in certain areas, there are so many regions in the world that are simply shut off from the benefit of the Internet and cell phones that they by no means close the information gap between project planners, funders, and recipients. Making the transmission of data easier does not necessarily make the willingness of project planners to process feedback greater.
The clear solution in all three projects I examined was a bureaucratic one. Project planners systematically demonstrate a tendency to build clear, defined plans that are resistant to later evolution as feedback comes in. Though I only wrote about three projects, I read many more reports on projects ranging from irrigation in Sub-Saharan Africa to hydroelectric dams in India and they all were heavy on planning, light on revision. My best guess is that this is driven by two primary factors: the complexities of bureaucracy and preferences of country donors.
The first is fairly obvious, as inserting a project into a foreign country necessarily involves multiple levels of administration and many moving parts, so planning out what all will happen is preferable to having all parts being responsive to feedback and acting independently. My best solution to this is to pull the feedback floating around at the lower rungs of the administrative ladder and sending it straight to the top, where it can be processed and factored into the “plan” and trickled down through the lower levels.
The second is not so obvious. Potential donors who give to the World Bank hold sessions where project leaders pitch their project to a panel, field questions, and demonstrate a proof of concept to try and get funding. Donors much prefer to hear a well-thought out, detailed, comprehensive plan for the next ten years to hearing a plan that’s deliberately open to adaptation as the results/feedback comes in. While understandable, this is very problematic, as results-based projects are markedly better than plan-based ones in the long run. My solution to this is for results-based projects to offer more benchmark checkpoints where the project planners meet with donors and show how things are going to maintain donor confidence in what is going on even without a comprehensive, front-end plan, while still allowing for adaptation along the way.
I also came into this research with the idea that every project deserved individual attention, and areas can only be generalized by their geographic location (i.e. being perceived as another Asian country, versus Bangladesh) to a small extent. All that I have found has affirmed this belief. Every culture is incredibly different, and though it would be much easier if countries could be grouped together and treated the same, it is not reality. For project leaders, it is counterproductive to search for macro-geographic trends. Instead, significant amounts of time must be dedicated to learning the indigenous culture and language, as well as their problems, if truly effective results are the objective.
Overall, this research project has been a highly informative and eye-opening experience that has changed how I view international aid. The world’s problems are not simple, and neither are their solutions. For our efforts to be successful, we must take time to learn our audience and to listen to what they have to say. Though it is somewhat depressing to see how many projects simply don’t do this, it is encouraging to see an emerging trend towards results-based aid coming from the World Bank over the last few years. If nothing else, this research has given me hope that there is a way to reach a better tomorrow for our world’s poor, if only we have the good sense to take it.