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The Challenges of Managing Projects in International Development

Project Manager in a Refugee Camp

Peter Marlow discusses the unique challenges of managing projects in the international development sector and how a recent training and certification scheme for project managers has made a big difference.

The Problem

International Development is big. For example, in 2018 the UK government spent £14bn of public money on foreign aid and is committed to a target of 0.7% of GDP being spent on aid. The European Union is the world’s largest humanitarian donor spending €123bn and this is just part of a bigger picture of public and private donations being spent trying to improve the lives of people living in the developing world.

Much of this investment ends up in projects – and being managed by international, national or local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities. They have Project Managers and project teams and manage many of the same challenges that you do: delivering on time, on scope and within budget. The context, however, is very different. They may be managing food distribution in a refugee camp, helping farmers to access markets, help populations trapped by conflict or improve the lives of people living in slums. The communities they serve trust the projects to deliver often life-changing benefit.

Given these challenges, development organisations tend to focus on the technical areas of their projects and recruit specialists with an appropriate in-depth technical knowledge such as health or water and sanitation. They are then required to manage projects and lead project teams – although they sometimes lack experience and skills in project management. As a consequence, the quality of project management can be variable with success dependent more on luck than judgment. Wheels are constantly being reinvented. There is no culture of improvement to embed good practice. Managers are understandably reluctant to admit mistakes as this can lead to the loss of donor funding. So learning opportunities are missed.

The Solution

The problem was recognised and in early 2007, a number of NGOs, including Save the Children, Oxfam, Care, World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, CRS, Plan International and Mercy Corps asked LINGOs (now Humentum), an NGO focused on building skills and capacity, to develop appropriate project management learning materials for the NGO sector.

Thanks to a grant from the Project Management Institute (PMI), LINGOs set up a working group of NGO specialists, and after consulting widely, concluded that current ways of working across the sector were inadequate. The group tested ideas and approaches, identified learning objectives, and developed an outline curriculum for a new project management course. This would set standards and a common language for project management in the NGO sector around the world. It would build on established methodologies to provide practical guidance for running development projects.

In 2010, Project Management in Development for Professionals (PMD Pro) was launched with free on-line learning tools and resources. A new independent NGO – PM4NGOs - was established to own the certification and APMG agreed to administer the exams on-line. The Guide is available in 9 languages, including Arabic and Chinese. To date there are over 20,000 certified PMD Pro professionals in 161 countries. This remarkable achievement is due to a highly successful train-the-trainer programme by Humenutm (LINGOs).

Posted 28 May 2019. This is an updated extract of an article which originally appeared in Project Manager Today in October 2016

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