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Project management in the developing world

Adeline Teoh
July 26, 2011

“I explain to students that the detailed program of activities that they’ve mapped out here in Australia may not be achievable in the local context. Expectations cannot be too high otherwise the project team will be disappointed and the presumed beneficiaries of the project will also be disappointed and demotivated and lose interest,” he says. “It’s getting students to realise they’re not accepting second best, they are simply doing what’s possible in the circumstances and to reconcile that doing what’s possible has more benefit than if they tried to achieve the impossible.”

The key to keeping scope in check is investigating community needs. “We do examine in very basic terms what we mean by ‘needs’ and how ‘needs’ are identified in countries outside Australia,” says Battersby. “We look at AusAID tenders, for example, and they get to understand the structure of a project, explanations for why we have this project, what the project aims to do and how it aims to do it. Then there’s the project plan, how the project will be evaluated and monitored, budgeted and risk managed, and how the project team will liaise with in-country staff and government officials.”

High stakes

Stakeholder management is another significant challenge for projects in the developing world, largely because stakeholders include the local community right up to government, non-government and multinational organisations, like the United Nations.

“We try to get students to consider all the different dimensions of a project by looking at the different stakeholders and how you would then try to establish and maintain relations with them and the challenges you might encounter,” says Battersby. “We teach students to acknowledge cultural diversity and to be prepared to work around obstacles created by people not sharing the same language, having different value systems and so forth. Someone’s value priorities may mean your project is not their first priority when you’re in the country trying to do your work.”

He admits that in many cases, development projects fail because of poor or late stakeholder management, which he warns his students against. “One of the biggest challenges in development projects can be not engaging sufficient community consultation before the project team and sponsor go in and build something. To say development is automatically a good thing is not the experience of everyone in developing countries.”

Projects in the developing world are more intense because project managers need to navigate a different project environment while working to achieve goals that are often about high stakes—lives and livelihoods. This intensity gives project managers experience that they may not get elsewhere, and provides perspective.

“It humbles you when you’re in those environments. I have people coming to me complaining about a content management system saying it’s the worst disaster in the world. I compare it to Botswana where they have a 30 percent incidence of HIV in the 18-to-24 age group. I think ‘your content management system might not be functioning well, but it’s not a disaster’. Literally a week’s delay on an HIV prevention project can lead to death,” Spence recounts.

But in the end, project managers need to realise that projects in the developing world have more in common with other projects than they might initially think, he says. “So many things are the same: cost, time, quality are all issues there, availability of resources is an issue as well. Anything you learn is going to be applicable there. For project managers, I hope that opens up a realisation that they have a transferable skill. It should be a liberating thing for a project manager to realise they can go anywhere.”

For students, being on the ground in a foreign environment provides an invaluable experience and a firsthand chance to see how projects benefit a community. “When it comes to taking theory and turning it into practical skills, it’s experience that defines the learning, which is why the whole project management process is so effective,” says Battersby.

“The students who come through this program don’t have a patronising sense of themselves helping the poor—they have more respect for the people they’re working with than that—but they see there are needs that can be met. A lot of people will feel a level of reward if they can do something they see is worthwhile and beneficial to people who they see as being disadvantaged in some way.”

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Adeline Teoh
Adeline Teoh is the editor and publisher of ProjectManager.com.au. 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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