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Project management in the developing world

Adeline Teoh
July 26, 2011

To many project managers working in underdeveloped nations, the ‘real’ world is the developing world where every delay can mean livelihoods affected, or even lives lost. These projects often present challenges due to their different cultural contexts and a lack of resources, with a constantly shifting scope with which to contend.

One issue more prevalent in the developing world compared with developed countries is the incidence of corruption, where project resources such as construction materials go missing. Scott Spence, chief executive of CC Consulting, has delivered project management training to groups in the Solomon Islands and Botswana as part of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He says one method to combat corruption is to instil a methodology that will help minimise its effects by ensuring proper project documentation and allocating roles to hold people responsible for different areas.

This also increases project management maturity, which enables complex projects to go ahead despite the lack of experienced complex project and program managers. “You’re working in an environment where there is a low capacity to deliver complex projects, but complex projects are required to get them out of their low developmental state,” Spence explains. “If everyone uses the same methodology, it lowers the activation energy required to deliver those complex projects.”

Another precious project resource is the project managers themselves. Projects in the government sector often suffer delays through attrition. “When any organisation trains people up to increase their competence, they leave and go into a sector that pays them more money. A person doing a good job in the government can triple or quadruple their salary by working for a mining company, for example,” he says. “Local, social projects take longer or don’t get done because of project manager poaching.”

After language and cultural issues, foreign project managers working in developing nations find scope creep one of the biggest challenges. The unfortunate part about most of these projects is that they are for worthy causes and it’s difficult to prioritise what a project should target, says Spence: “These development projects run by the UNDP really want to save the world; they want to reduce poverty, increase health and income, look after the environment. There are nine development goals from the UNDP and they’re all admirable.”

He says project managers need to admit they can’t do everything. “There’s risk of dilution if you take on extra activity. The project manager’s role, apart from ensuring delivery, is to provide information to the executive to make scoping decisions,” he says. “Define the scope up front, document the objectives and the business case and then manage stakeholders appropriately. Knowing the limitations of your decision-making power as a project manager is important.”

Paul Battersby, associate professor of International Relations at RMIT University agrees. He has introduced a project management framework into the international studies course because many of his students wish to pursue work in developing countries and much of that centres on projects. The students then do practical work in Thailand. Battersby says it’s difficult, but students must learn to curb their enthusiasm and stop trying to do too much.

Adeline Teoh
Adeline Teoh is the editor and publisher 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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