What can we do to improve the quality of development projects?

What can we do to improve the quality of development projects?
12 contributions

What can we do to improve the quality of development projects?

©FAO/Marco Longari / FAO

In rural and agricultural development, projects are the main instrument for piloting and/or implementing policies and programmes. When evaluating projects, we identify issues that affect their effectiveness and note that these often originate from flaws at design and/or implementation stages.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of “good practices” to avoid such flaws that emerge from my experience.

At design stage, projects should:

  • Be subject to quality assurance processes that externally assess whether the theory of change of the project is robust enough for achieving its intended goals.
  • Require information on lessons learnt from previous interventions in the domain/country in which the project will intervene. If a project proposes to implement an approach that has failed elsewhere, this should be justified and assessed during the quality review phase.
  • Contain convincing narratives and SMART indicators for the impacts, outcomes and outputs of the intervention, which should be accompanied by a budgeted M&E plan.

At implementation stage, projects should:

  • Systematically monitor achievement of indicators and targets.
  • Carry out targeted research in order to identify what is working/not working (especially the latter), based on information generated by the monitoring system.
  • Hold steering committee meetings (or after action reviews), where managers and stakeholders present/analyze good practices and lessons learnt to avoid/solve bottlenecks.

Which good practices would you recommend to governments, donors, international organizations and NGOs to improve their project effectiveness?

Look forward to hearing from you!

Carlos Tarazona

Office of Evaluation, FAO 

This discussion is now closed. Please contact info@evalforward.org for any further information.
  • Dear members,

    Thanks to all of you for contributing to this discussion. 

    Here is a summary of the suggestions and ideas shared:

    • Quality projects should clearly contribute to a bigger developmental impact of the country.
    • Projects should have clear objectives, milestones and monitoring of deliverables.
    • Commitment and ownership by the government is key; this goes beyond the signing of the financial agreement and includes the actual commitment of human and financial resources.
    • Participation of beneficiaries since the design stage can help in ensuring that the project address a problem that is relevant to them. 
    • Projects should be relevant to the beneficiaries: “to the point that they are conscious of their right to hold project management units and concerned ministries to account”.
    • Having qualified management teams, who will ensure that projects are implemented with efficiency, quality, meritocracy, inclusiveness and sustainability in mind.
    • Donors and steering committees have a critical role in guiding project implementation, provided that members are knowledgeable about the project and have time to add value to it, and able to critically review implementation and provide directive for improvement.
    • There is a limited use of past lessons to inform new project design. Programmes should develop and validate key lessons, innovations and good practices experienced and these should inform new design/appraisal missions and future interventions.
    • There is reluctance to stop poorly conceived projects, even when it is clear that these will not achieve their objectives.
    • Projects should have a sustainability plan and exit strategy, including hand over of interventions to existing institutions or structures that are prepared to take over the management and operationalization of project outcomes. 

    I look forward to further exchanges with the Community!


  • Chers collègues,

    J'ai lu les nombreuses réponses pertinentes fournies à la question en débat. Les contributions sont riches. Ce que je voudrais ajouter, c'est l'importance de l'identification du problème. La qualité du projet de développement dépend beaucoup de la pertinence du problème identifié. Nous devons nous attarder à ce niveau pour ne pas identifier un faux problème, en prenant par exemple une manifestation (effet) pour le problème. A cet effet, l'approche participative est nécessaire. La participation active des communautés concernées est indispensable. On pourrait par exemple utiliser les techniques d'analyse du problème, la méthode cadre logique et/ou le cadre d’analyse des 4R (Responsabilities, Rights, Returns, Relationship).
    En tant qu'outil de diagnostic (puis de suivi-évaluation), le cadre d’analyse 4R permet de savoir à l’exécution si chaque acteur concerné a assumé les rôles et responsabilités qui lui sont dévolus, a bénéficié des droits et retombées qui lui sont prévus et que les relations qu'il devrait avoir avec les autres acteurs se sont déroulées favorablement.



    Dear colleagues,

    I have read the many relevant answers provided to the issue under discussion. The contributions are rich. What I would like to add is the importance of identifying the problem. The quality of the development project depends very much on the relevance of the problem identified. We must dwell at this level to avoid addressing a false problem, for example by taking a manifestation (effect) for the problem. For this purpose, the participatory approach is necessary. The active participation of the communities concerned is essential. For example, problem analysis techniques, the logical framework method and / or the 4R (Responsabilities, Rights, Returns, Relationship) framework could be used.
    As a tool for diagnosis (followed by monitoring and evaluation), the 4R analysis framework makes it possible to know at runtime whether each actor concerned has assumed the roles and responsibilities devolved to it, has benefited from the rights and benefits that are planned for him and that the relations he should have with the other actors have been favorable.

    Thank you.


  • Ian Teese

    Ian Teese


    Thanks for your comprehensive description of the issues in the design and implementation of rural development activities. Based on my own 30 years’ experience in the design, implementation and evaluation of large scale rural development projects for bi-lateral and multi-lateral agencies, I would add:

    1. I have not experienced any situations where I believed stakeholders we were interviewing had been prepared/briefed to give pre-determined answers. Yes, sometimes, our local counterparts may have taken the easy way out of arranging interviewees from their own networks but, a structured interview/cross-reference process usually shows up the problems. 

      I am aware of one major supervision mission in a large development country that found evidence of pre-prepared interviewees. Ironically, the mission leader was not prepared to impose a sanction for this behaviour.

      A small point on this, in all my work interviewing farmers in developing countries and Australia, I have very rarely had any situations where the interviewees tried to mislead me.  Rural people in their own environment give honest answers.
    1. It is very unusual to find a project concept that has passed the identification process not to proceed to implementation. The strategy / design may be reworked but political and (local and donor) agency pressures usually leads to implementation. This reluctance to kill a poorly conceived project early is one of the main reasons I have found for poorly performing projects.


    Ian Teese  Development Economist Australia

  • At design stage we can add that the project should identify deliverables/ mile stones that can approve finishing a task, and during monitoring these deliverables can be checked to report ending the task. That is very materialistic, but sets the ground to expect the achievement of targeted goals.

  • Hi all,

    Thanks for initiating a dialogue.

    From my experience, one important aspect is to know whether the project is really relevant to beneficiaries both in short and longer term and how the intervention is going to contribute the specific development objectives. Readiness of the beneficiaries to collaborate is another critical factor.
    It is also important to have a comprehensive theory change as the intervention is influenced by other internal/external factors that are responsible for creating enabling or disabling environment. Sometime – we generate our logic and reasons (we basically create an island in most of the time) but that may not held true and our interventions do not yield results. So, in many cases, relevancy and weak design have been the main reason for a success and failure of an intervention. I am sure there also other issues while implementing the project.

    Best regards,

    Ram Chandra Khanal, *PhD*

    *President - Community of Evaluators - Nepal and BoDs - Nepal Krishi (agri)*

    Kathmandu, Nepal

  • Javier Guarnizo

    Javier Guarnizo

    UNIDO Office of Evaluation and Internal Oversight

    Dear Paul,

    Government ownership, in terms on the financial commitment,  cannot only be the signing of the agreement.  The real  commitment is in the actual disbursement of course. (in form and on time). However the focus shouldn’t be on the money in any case.  (money = inputs)

    More than Donors being holding governments to live up to their commitment,  the key aspect is that Government ownership is also shown in the level of interest on having the project achievement its results.  My point is that  If government is REALLY interested in the project (e.g. its results = outputsàoutcome à impact), then THEY commit and provide the funding or co-funding, and THEY are also in the driver seat, hence ultimately they should even hold donors to live up to their commitments. (the other way around)

    If this is not happening, then the real ownership is missing (only signing the finance agreement but not disbursing), and better to consider rebuilding that ownership, slowing down or re-scoping the project.  Otherwise, closing eyes and continuing as if nothing happens, will likely end in one more non-effective project.

    This is very linked to your last point on beneficiary ownership; which would be more an aspect for the proper implementation and monitoring of the project, that will at the end provoke or contribute to a transformational change (behavioral change) in the beneficiaries; which is the proof of their local-ownership, which also will ensure sustainability.   At this point, Government ownership should then result in the replication and scale-up   (where outcome and large scale impact is then achieved) which is the ultimate result of the project.

    With warm regards


  • Dear Mr. Javier Guarnizo,

    Thanks for sharing your experience in development project management, especially on the key pointers to achieving effectiveness.

    My take on the pointer about Government Ownership is that it usually stops at the level of the signing of the Financing Agreement. African Governments (for what I know) have often not lived up to the promise of making their counterpart contribution, for instance. In fact, they have often generally failed to honour the Malabo declaration of allocating 10% to Agriculture in their national budgets. We have seen projects struggle to receive regular and timely disbursements of local government funding (GLF). So it is one thing for Government to sign up to a development project but I think it is quite another to use that as a guarantee of its continued commitment to the course.

    Based on your experience, I would like you to further share with us, how donors can hold governments to live up to their commitment, at least to ensure the committed contribution is disbursed 100%?

    Another point of concern I have is, how can government ownership, as expressed in the signing of the Financing Agreement and disbursement of counterpart funds (let us suppose this is the case), be translated to beneficiary ownership, which I think is the ultimate result of the project?

    Thanks, it's interesting reading from you, Sir.

  • Hi Carlos,

    Thank you for outlining quite some interesting action points to aid the achievement of improved development project performance.

    One of your actions which really catches my attention is the use of lessons learnt from previous interventions in the domain/country to design new or follow up projects or programmes, which is indisputable. However, my experience is that this is not being done, which is why we are experiencing recurring project failures, especially in our part of the world (West Africa in general and my country, The Gambia in particular). I think the issue of not using past lessons to inform future programming is "cultural and institutional" about Africans (generally speaking). As such it requires a paradigm shift in terms of national development policies and programmes, but also a shift in orientation on the part of the personnel who participate in or influence development project designs and appraisal.

    I think there should be proactive actions in place (documented and signed as part of Financing Agreements) to change the ball game. For instance, actions such as making it mandatory for projects to develop and validate key lessons, innovations and good practices experienced during program implementation  could help on the one hand; and then, ensuring that new design/appraisal missions make reference to and use of those lessons/innovations/good practices to inform future interventions could help the situation.

    Another of your proposed actions I want to react to is the one on the Project Steering Committee (PSC) Meetings. My experience is that PSCs are not effective at what they are set out to do and this is for the following reasons: (i) members of PSCs are often not knowledgeable about the project they are "steering" (most have not laid their hands on the project design/appraisal report); (ii) these are generally civil servants occupying top positions in their Ministries or Departments and so do not have time to add value to the project; (iii) PSC meetings are usually well attended for the sitting allowances members will collect rather than the job they're tasked to do, which is to critically review project implementation and provide directive for improvement. For instance, is it feasible that a PSC meeting held in just 3 or 4 hours can do justice to the task?

    So, my conclusion is that people's orientation must change to realise the good promises of project management and the institutional and legal frameworks governing projects should be revisited to bring about effectiveness in project implementation. Here, beneficiary awareness to the point that they are conscious of their right to hold project management units and concerned ministries to account, is critical. One's commitment to the profession of project management (across its core areas) should come to light in what actions one takes in project implementation, bearing in mind that development projects are meant to transform the lives and livelihoods of nations, communities and societies for good. Social engineering to bring about transformational change amongst the citizens is key. Nationalization and empowerment of M&E is also critical to this: perhaps set up Ministry of Evaluation to coordinate evaluation of development projects/programmes effectiveness across the country is one of several options for consideration. Strengthening of civil society organizations and promoting their inclusion in the implementation of development projects can help a lot in sustaining development outcomes as well as holding governments to account for the resources invested in projects.

    Thank you 

  • Hello everyone. I am so happy to be back on the forum, after some while offline.

    My take on the topic, what can we do to improve the quality of development projects is as follows:

    1. Recruit a project management team which possesses the requisite capacity (both as individuals and as a team) to deliver development projects: Project Management Professionals are few and far between in many least developing countries, and even whereas possessing this qualification does not necessarily guaranty quality delivery, coupled with experience, motivation and commitment, it does serve as a recipe for success. The 9 Project Knowledge Areas are critical for project management success and should not be underestimated.

    2. Recruit a Project Coordinator/Director/Manager who has the technical skills and qualities of a level-5 Leader: The role of a Project Team Director/Coordinator/Manager is to lead the team towards achieving the project results. Equipped with results-based management skills, a project team leader is crucial for quality development project performance.

    3. Conduct procurement in a professional manner - follow due process and pursue principles of fairness, efficiency, and quality: Corruption, as alluded to by earlier contributors, is inimical to progress. Corruption at the project level mostly happens within the framework of procurement. Where this is curbed, one can be optimistic that project delivery will be effective - contract management will be robust and deliverables will be of high quality. The reverse is catastrophic and that, unfortunately, is what has contributed to the failure of most development projects.

    4. Effective stakeholder analysis and management throughout the project life cycle: This will ensure smooth implementation, promote ownership and guarantee sustainability. But, very importantly, the continued utilization of the outcomes by beneficiaries is likely to be achieved. Otherwise, we have seen projects which end at the completion of construction works; for instance, markets built but not utilized beyond the project life. Often these projects are brought to communities by some influential retired civil servant or politician, usually without due regard for the interests and influences of other actors within society and so the project ends up as a white elephant.

    5. Quality Monitoring and Evaluation System: It is one thing to have in place a good M&E Framework with all the ingredients like quality data collection, good participation of beneficiaries, management willingness to make use of the M&E reports to support decision making, etc; however, it is quite another very important thing to have in place the personnel to drive the system and bring in the necessary energy and innovation to make it functional and relevant. Quality M&E system requires continuous capacity building for all stakeholders at different levels, including end-users of the M&E reports.   

    6. Project Sustainability Plan and Exit Strategy: One of the reasons for the lack of sustainability of many projects in my country (The Gambia), is the lack of a sustainability plan and exit strategy. Projects phase out without proper hand over of interventions to existing institutions or structures for continuity. These institutions or structures need to be well prepared (capacity building) to take over the management and operationalization of project outcomes which must be carefully identified and appreciated with the involvement and input of the beneficiaries who are the end-users of the facilities. Implementing a sustainability plan/Exit strategy is a painstaking effort but if carefully done can guarantee development project success.

    With these in mind I think the quality of development project can be improved.

    Thank you.



  • What can we do to improve the quality of development projects?  Comments

    This is a very interesting and tough question, at least for smallholder agriculture projects. To get a full appreciation of the problem it is necessary to take a detailed look at how projects are formulated, the time & costs of formulating a development project, the degree the project developers are isolated from the beneficiaries, the representation the beneficiaries have during project development, the extend the donor is expecting the implementing team to appease their concept of what needs to be done and the cost of not appeasing the donor in terms of contract extensions and future projects.

    Most agriculture development projects take a least 2 years from conception to signed contract & implementation with a cost at least one million US dollars. This is before there is an opportunity to objectively meet and interview beneficiaries and become aware of what their real needs and interest are. With that much time and money invested no one want to hear the project is mis-conceived and the beneficiaries are not interested and avoiding active participation. During this time the basic conceptualization is done by donors and often based on academic idealism, heavily promoted of social desirability rather than solid business accounting etc. This is done with the cooperation of host governments, who claim to represent the beneficiaries, but often don’t have the financial resources to be close contract with the beneficiaries and may have some personal vested interest in the project. During this period any contact with the beneficiaries are usually limited to very quick highly orchestrated appraisal visits and relying on pre-arranged and well briefed beneficiaries for interviewing. The beneficiaries are actually isolated from the donors claiming to arrange assistance for them by a 4-level development hierarchy. The end result is often very rigidly contracts with little flexibility for modification, leaving the implementors with little choice but to leverage the beneficiaries to comply with the donors conceptualization of what they need, or simply ignore project and proceed as best they can, which most opt for. The implementing team is also virtually hostage to appeasement reporting to show a successful project, regardless of the actual acceptance by the beneficiaries. Fail to do so will be interpreted as failure of implementing team resulting in limited project extension or future projects. After all the project design was perfect.

    The best example of this is the nearly 40 years and billions invested in producer organization or cooperatives. However, an objective evaluation would show well over 90% failures collapsing immediately after external funding and facilitation end, with less than 15% of potential beneficiaries participating, marketing little more than the intuitional in-kind loan repayment, representing only 5% of the community’s market volume. Also, if the beneficiaries really relied on the project business model the overhead costs would exceed the bulking volume benefits which would than force the farmers deeper into poverty, despite the massive rhetoric of poverty alleviation.

    Please review the following webpages from the smallholderagriculture.agsci.colostate.edu website:




  • Javier Guarnizo

    Javier Guarnizo

    UNIDO Office of Evaluation and Internal Oversight

    What I have learned as project field implementer (+10 years) in the ground, then as project manager in UN agencies (7 years) and now as UN Evaluator (+10 years) would be:

    First, what I understand as “Quality of development project”? = A Project that is fit for purpose , e.g. achieves its outcome(s) that clearly contribute to a developmental impact.

    What then can we do to get those projects happen:

    • Design process is key, to:
      • Ensure the project is part of something bigger. It should be part of a developmental effort (programme) for the country.
      • Ensure clarity of objectives (outcome. Contribution to impact). How it will be measured afterwards?
      • Ensure government ownership. (The best indicator of government ownership is the financing or co-financing of the project)

    If all of the 3 elements before are not there,  DO NOT implement the project   (doesn’t matter if you have the funds!, there are always better ways to spend them).

    • During implementation:
      • Just ensure that the above 3 elements remain.  If not, make corrections, adaptation to get the 3 elements back (by the way, this is also called monitoring, when done systematically).  If needed, change the scope.  Be realistic.  Focus on the outcomes and adapt the activities and outputs as needed.
      • If by any reason, one or more of the 3 elements are not there anymore, and cannot be corrected or adjusted.  STOP the project. (cancel it).  There are so many project that their implementation is finished for the sake of finishing (knowing that it will not achieve its purpose)
    • Finally: In any case:  get a proper Independent Evaluation to validate results, and learn out of it. There is no need to make the same mistakes over and over again, since there are so many new mistakes that we can do :-) 

    Warm regards,

    Javier Guarnizo

    UNIDO Office of Evaluation and Internal Oversight

  • To improve the quality of development projects, do the following:

    1. look into the loopholes that promote corruption

    2. change the mind-set of workers towards serving the citizens and not what is in for them

    3. ensure sanctions are enforced when due to deter other retarding measures

    4. recruit project staff based on meritocracy and not based on know-who and political patronage

    5. easy information sharing

    6. regular provision of feedback to the stakeholders including the beneficiaries on the performance of the project and seeking input for correction

    Abubakar Muhammad Moki