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Madonna, Malawi and misguided projects

Adeline Teoh ed.
September 8, 2011

Is governance the new black? The case of Madonna, Malawi and misguided projects in the developing world.

At the hairdressers the other day I read an article in the recent Marie Claire (Australian edition, October 2011) about Madonna’s failed mission to save Malawi, the country where her two adopted children were born. The article was an overview of how a charity she was associated with allegedly siphoned the money collected from her celebrity-studded fundraising events, leaving the projects she began bereft of resources.

Even though the article didn’t cover the details of the projects, from the outset I could see why they were doomed.

Misguided initiatives: It’s all very well for Madonna to want to help, but did anyone ask Malawi what it needed? Her idea to build a girls’ school mirrored a similar initiative started by Oprah Winfrey in South Africa, but didn’t address the lack of educational infrastructure that would have required the school to make a giant leap in standards to succeed had it gone ahead, nor the cultural aspects and dearth of employment prospects that graduates would need to face to forge a career after attending the school.

There were also other projects that may have been a better investment to improve Malawian lives. The school’s foundations were established on land taken from farmers, for example, so it seems there were already problems with getting stakeholders onside for a project that looked good on paper for donors, but were not necessarily what the locals required or would prioritise if they had the money.

Lack of executive support: Madonna is a pop singer and has probably never been a project sponsor in the true sense of the word. Despite her initial passion for the projects—which included various health and education initiatives—it never seemed as if she was interested in seeing them through. Once she passed the glamour of the fundraising stage, the projects were handed to her foundation to manage. Without her ongoing support, those projects were pretty much dead in the water.

Lack of governance: Governance, it appears, is the new black for projects. As the economy tightens, projects are being scrutinised left, right and centre, and governance seems to be the missing link for a lot of wayward projects. What’s telling in Madonna’s case is the absence of a project manager or project director—or anyone qualified at all—to guide the process and deliver the desired outcomes. A shame when there are project managers here waiting for the call!

I could go on, but it seems unfair to continue without having more comprehensive information about what happened. Instead, have a read of our news feature, Poor governance costs mega-projects which concludes that all is not lost if you heed the warning signs and act accordingly to save your project.

For a deeper read, you may also like Nick Pelham and Chris Flaherty’s article and paper Does project success rely on good governance?, which asks that question and more.

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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