International development projects by non-governmental organizations

peculiarities and methodologies



International Development (ID) projects are pivotal in the field of international aid but have only received limited attention in terms of project management research. Focusing on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), this paper summarizes and verifies the existent literature that (1) underlines the distinctive features of these projects and (2) suggests the need for management methodologies that differ from the traditional ones. Furthermore, the paper analyzes how the peculiarities of these ID projects could be taken into consideration in the development of specific methodologies. The results are obtained through a literature review, interviews with project managers of ID projects, and thanks to the comparison of the two most widespread methodologies used to manage ID projects in NGOs (PM4NGO and PMDPRO) with PMI's standard, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).

Keywords: NGOs; development; ID projects; methodologies; logical framework


International Development (ID) projects are pivotal in the field of international aid to developing countries. These projects are the main instrument through which international aid is directed to developing countries. Different from emergency projects whose objective is providing immediate assistance to populations hit by wars or natural disaster, ID projects usually take place in more stable contexts with the aim of improving living conditions in terms of economic conditions, education, or health. For these reasons, ID projects are less visible to society, but normally they lead to more durable results, and statistics confirm that they are attracting a growing trend of funds and human capital (Diallo & Thuillier, 2005; OECD, 2008, 2009).

Despite their importance, ID projects have not yet received the necessary attention in terms of project management tools and approaches (Khang & Moe, 2008). A recent research by McKinsey and Devex (Lovegrove, Gebre, Lee, & Kumar, 2011) confirms that ID projects often lack efficiency and effectiveness. Unfortunately, it is not straightforward to apply standard project management techniques to ID projects. In fact, researchers and practitioners agree that project management can be applied to different contexts, but also that some adaptations are necessary, industry by industry (Besner & Hobbs, 2008). Because ID projects have peculiar characteristics (e.g., not-for-profit nature, high stakeholders involvement, difficult contexts), additional research appears to be necessary (Youker, 2004).

As explained in the following, specific tools like the Project Cycle Management (PCM) and the Logical Framework (LF) have been developed to help governmental agencies and NGOs to properly manage ID projects. Landoni and Corti (2011) highlighted that these tools are used by the most important governmental development agencies in different ways, tailoring the available methodologies and defining specific guidelines. However, there is limited evidence that these, or other standard project management tools, are also adopted by NGOs dealing with ID projects.

Given this starting point, in this paper we aim to understand the peculiarities of ID projects and how these peculiarities are addressed by the existing methodologies and tools. To fulfill this objective, we discuss the two most diffused specific methodologies developed for NGOs (namely, PM4DEV and PMDPRO). Then, we compared them with A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) developed by Project Management Institute (PMI). We also interviewed project managers working in NGOs and industry experts in order to enrich and validate the results. Results confirm that ID projects, given their peculiarities, need the adoption of both standard and specific project management tools and methodologies.

Interestingly, many of the day-by-day challenges faced by ID projects (e.g., difficult contexts, cultural clashes, long-term and implicit objectives, many stakeholders) correspond to the new challenges of business-to-business projects. Because of this, our results could be considered relevant not only for those working on development projects, but also for project managers in general.

The paper is organized as follows. First, the main literature on ID projects and the research objectives are introduced. Then, we describe the methodology followed for this research, and we analyze the available methodologies for managing ID projects. Finally, we present the results of our research showing the differences that emerged from the comparisons between the methodologies considered.

Literature Review and Research Objectives

According to the literature, limited insights have been provided about how much project management standards are diffused among companies and other organizations (Ahlemann, Teuteberg, & Vogelsang, 2009), especially among those not belonging to the project-based industries. In fact, much focus has been put on industries like engineering and construction, information technology, and project manufacturing (e.g., aerospace). This represents a gap that researchers and practitioners are trying to fill and that, over time, has brought extensions of project management standards adapted to specific contexts (Besner & Hobbs, 2008). In fact, despite the universalistic nature of project management methodologies, different industries show different approaches to project management. One of the most neglected sectors is the no-profit one, and we found very little research about how NGOs approach project management for International Development (ID) projects.

NGOs and ID projects

The term NGOs was introduced in 1950, during the 288 (X) Resolution of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, to refer to those organizations that have no link with governments. NGOs are characterized by a specific focus on human development and poverty reduction. NGOs are private organizations, independent from governments and their policies, that operate with no-profit purposes to improve life conditions of poor populations (Vakil, 1997). Inside this broad definition, the literature has identified some additional characteristics of NGOs (Raimondi & Antonelli, 2001). First of all, NGOs apply a participative approach, involving the beneficiaries in the key aspects of the development process; moreover, they tend to have a “democratic” rather than “hierarchic” organization. Finally, they tend to diversify the financing sources in order to avoid being influenced by the sponsors. Still, this definition is quite broad and encompasses NGOs providing different types of help: financial, technical, related to knowledge, or technology transfer.

Today, NGOs have an important role in reaching the poorest populations and providing them with effective help, sometimes with the endorsement of governments (Koch, Dreher, Nunnenkamp, & Thiele, 2009). In 2005 and 2006, the help provided by donors to receiving countries through NGOs grew by 10%; today, 40,000 NGOs are estimated to operate worldwide (Kovach et al., 2003). This rising importance is mainly related to three factors: the successes obtained by some NGOs (Brown & Kalegaonkar, 2002); the limitations of the governments as helping agents (Hyden, 1998; Lindberg, Voss, & Blackmon, 1998); and the involvement of private citizens (Putnam, Leonardi, & Nanetti, 1994; Woolcock, 1998).

NGOs differ from other organizations in the way they operate. Gellert (1996) introduces six attributes that are distinctive of NGOs: capability of reaching difficult areas, promoting the involvement and commitment of the local community, low-cost, adaptability and innovations, independence, and sustainability. Furthermore, NGOs often play the role of intermediary between governments and the populations fostering a voluntary involvement in the projects and programs.

Also, ID projects have some specific characteristics, related to their special objectives and context (Diallo & Thuillier, 2005; Khang & Moe, 2008; Youker, 2004).

NGOs and ID projects, as previously shown, have characteristics that make them different from other organizations and other projects; however, there are no contributions in the literature that identify such peculiarities in a unique framework. It is therefore fundamental to understand the peculiarities of ID projects before evaluating if the available methodologies and tools are adequate. Thus, our first research question is: What are the peculiarities of ID projects (RQ1)?

ID Projects and Managing Tools

Given the aforementioned peculiarities, some specific tools have been developed to manage ID projects. First of all, in 1970, Baum introduced the project cycle management (PCM) concept into ID projects (Baum, 1970). The project cycle breaks down a project into phases that connect the beginning of the project to the end. Therefore, the PCM means managing projects end-to-end and adopting different approaches and tools for the different parts of the project.

The PCM represents a framework rather than a tool in itself. Because of that, inside the PCM different tools have been developed (Biggs & Smith, 2003) and, among these, the most known is the Logical Framework (LF). This tool is now widespread and is often considered as a stand-alone tool (Couillard, Garon, & Riznic, 2009). The LF was developed in 1969 by Fry Associates and Practical Concepts, Inc. for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) (Solem, 1987). In its original form, the LF is a 4 by 4 matrix, crossing goals, purpose, inputs, and outputs of the project with the sources of verification and assumptions. The objective is to provide a synthetic view of the project for all the stakeholders and support the design, plan, management, and communication of the project (Coleman, 1987; Gasper, 1997).

As reported by Landoni and Corti (2011), PCM and LF are adopted by some of the most important governmental agencies dealing with ID projects (e.g., USAID); however, there are some differences in how these methodologies are used, as witnessed by a lack of standards in the management of ID projects. For example, AusAID (the Australian Government's overseas aid program) does not explicitly mention PCM even if they work with a similar framework based on six phases. JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) instead, adopts the LF, adding pre-conditions to the columns.

The fact that some of the most important governmental agencies have changed and customized the LF highlights some limitations of the tool itself. Among the major shortcomings, the literature deems LF to have unclear terminology, unclear links between levels, and lack of stakeholder involvement (Couillard et al., 2009). Also, a lack of integration with other project management standards is cited as a major problem, because PCM and LF are not completely substitutes for traditional project management tools (e.g., Work Breakdown Structure, Gantt diagram).

This has led to several reformulations of PCM and LF, and some indications of the need for further improvements (Couillard et al., 2009; Gasper, 2000).

However, in the literature there is a lack of contributions about how specific tools like PCM and LF should be integrated in a broader project management methodology. For example, it is not clear whether tools like the project charter (described in the PMBOK® Guide) are used and relevant for NGOs managing ID projects.

Therefore, in this paper, we analyze whether differences among specific methodologies (i.e., those developed by PM4NGO and PM4DEV) and standard bodies of knowledge (here represented by the PMBOK® Guide) exist. Thus, our second research question is: What are the differences between ID project methodologies for NGOs and the PMBOK® Guide? In particular, what are the differences in terms of processes and tools (RQ2)?

Finally, in the discussion we analyze the connections between RQ1 and RQ2; that is, we discuss how the peculiarities are related to differences between the specific methodologies and the standard one.

Methodology and Data

In order to provide an answer to the above research questions, first of all we performed a structured literature review to point out the peculiarities of NGOs and ID projects. We also validated and enriched our results by means of interviews with project managers of ID projects. We conducted structured interviews with heads of project management departments of two Italian NGOs and a number of more informal interviews with field project managers in Italy and abroad.

Next, we performed a content analysis of the two main methodologies developed for NGOs (PM4NGOs and PM4DEV) and we compared them with the PMBOK® Guide. These methodologies are briefly described in the following paragraphs.

Two organizations (PM4NGOs and PM4DEV) developed specific project management methodologies for NGOs managing International Development Projects.

The former, PM4NGOs, is an organization devoted to training and disseminating project management knowledge among NGOs. This initiative was born in 2007, with the scope of promoting a standard of project management in the developing sector (Cattaway, 2009). Many other organizations support PM4NGOs, for example, the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF), which encourages the spread of project management knowledge with the objective of improving economic, educational, and social conditions.

These two associations published, respectively, two methodologies called PMDPro1 and PMDPro and they offer a program with certifications divided into three levels:

  • Level 1: general understanding of the PDMPro
  • Level 2: Deep understanding and ability to apply the concepts of PMDPro, which also requires a basic certification from another organization (e.g., IPMA Level D, Price 2 Foundation)
  • Level 3: Deep understanding and ability to apply the concepts of PMDPro to ID projects, which also requires an advanced certification from another organization (e.g., IPMA Level C, Price 2 Practitioner)

The latter, PM4DEV, is involved not only in training activities but also in consulting. They offer three types of courses (Fundamentals of Project Management, Mastering Project Management, and Adaptive Project Management) and they developed their specific methodologies. Through the experience of project managers who have worked in international organizations for developing, the main objective of PM4DEV is to provide fundamental needs to the community involved in developing projects, offering them tools and processes to plan, execute, monitor and control the project in a more consistent and reliable manner.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), developed by Project Management Institute, is one of the most widely used project management standards, and we considered the last edition (2008) as a reference to understanding the peculiarities of the other methodologies.

We performed the analyses of the methodologies by following three steps.

First of all, we compared the methodologies developed by PM4NGO and PM4DEV with the PMBOK® Guide. The elements of comparison were:

  • Project cycle: phases and structure
  • Project management processes considered
  • Tools considered (with a qualitative indication of the level of detail provided for each tool). We considered both standard project management tools (e.g., Gantt chart) and specific tools for ID projects (e.g., Logical Framework)

Finally, we analyzed how the methodologies specific for NGOs address the peculiarities seen above.


Peculiarities of International Development Projects (RQ1)

Thanks to the literature review and the interviews, we identified the peculiarities of ID projects. In Table 1, we reported the most important ones and grouped them into five categories. The literature is rather dispersed, meaning that no article cites all the peculiarities and not all the articles mention the same peculiarities. However, we deem our list to be complete thanks also to the interviews done, which confirmed the items identified and allowed for adding one more item related to “issues with contracts.” Interviewees particularly stressed the difficulty of measuring project outputs, especially the intangible ones.

Table 1: The peculiarities identified in the literature and confirmed by interviews.

Stakeholder management (involvement and communication) (Youker, 1999)
(Saad, Cicmil, & Greenwood, 2002)
(Diallo & Thuillier, 2005)
(Steinfort, 2010)
Difficult environment (Youker, 1999)
(Diallo & Thuillier, 2004)
(Khang & Moe, 2008)
(Gruner, 2005)
Resource scarcity (Youker, 1999)
(Quartey Jnr, 1996)
(Muriithi & Crawford, 2003)
Difficulty in using project management techniques in the context of other cultures (Ahsan & Gunawan, 2010)
(Muriithi & Crawford, 2003)
(Crawford & Bryce, 2003)
(Chan & Raymond, 2003)
Presence of intangible project outputs, difficult to be defined and measured (Khang & Moe, 2008)
(Steinfort, 2010)
(Ahsan & Gunawan, 2010)

The first peculiarity is related to the number of stakeholders. In ID projects, in fact, the number of stakeholders involved is higher than in other kinds of projects and they often have blurred roles. ID projects involve at least three separate key stakeholders; namely, the funding agency, which pays for but does not directly use project output; the implementing unit; and the target beneficiaries who benefit from project output but usually do not pay for the project (Ahsan & Gunawan, 2010). The presence of a large array of stakeholders requires their involvement in the project; in fact, the lack of involvement and communication among stakeholders might lead to a wrong definition of the project objectives and therefore to a failure in achieving them. This result highlights the importance of stakeholder management in development projects. Local communities are one of the most critical, difficult stakeholders to be managed. Transferring knowledge to the target population is a priority during every phase of the project. Moreover, local communities' involvement helps in identifying the characteristics of environment and the reality of where the project will be implemented, which is important for project success.

Next, the difficulty of the environment is a second crucial peculiarity. Developing countries are often characterized by scarcity of resources, lack of infrastructure, and complex supply networks. These factors usually cause problems to the project. In addition, local governments are often short of resources and might have trouble supplying all the information and resources promised at the time of planning and approving the project. Corruption is an endemic problem and therefore monitoring and ensuring transparency can be difficult. Last, the administrative bureaucracies are often very intricate and frequently cause delays in the projects.

Another peculiarity of ID projects is the involvement of different countries at the same time (e.g., donors and receivers) in which differences in values and cultures take considerable cross-cultural problems. A project manager must be aware of the difficulties that might arise from the use of a project management methodology in a different cultural context in which the approach is different and the standard_tools might be unknown. As pointed out by interviews and the literature (Chan & Raymond, 2003), cultural differences can also present an issue when signing contracts.

Finally, the relevant presence of intangible outputs can create further difficulties. The objectives of development projects concern poverty alleviation, living standards improvement, and basic human rights protection. These humanitarian and social objectives are usually much less tangible, visible, and measurable, especially in the short term.

Other peculiarities pointed out by literature, but less frequent in articles and interviews, were: issues related to risk identification and evaluation (Kwak & Dixon, 2008) and the need for integrated management of functions (Muriithi & Crawford, 2003).

The Difference between ID Project Methodologies and Standard Project Management Methodologies (RQ2)

After the analysis of the peculiarities, we compared the PM4NGO and PM4DEV methodologies with the PMBOK® Guide. The life cycles also look very similar in the proposed phases (Table 2).

Table 2: Comparison of life cycles.

Comparison of life cycles

Also, the processes considered are quite similar (Table 3). The PMBOK® Guide does not consider Project Justification Management (that is taken into account by PM4NGO) and Project Contract Management (taken into account by PM4DEV), which may be related to the difficulty of managing contracts pointed out during the interviews. On the contrary, the PMBOK® Guide considers the Project Integration Management that is neglected by the other two. PM4NGO does not look at Quality Management and Human Resource Management, whereas PM4DEV does.

Table 3: Comparison of processes (a gray cell means that the process is included in the methodology; white means that it is not).

Process Integration Management      
Project Scope Management      
Project Time Management      
Project Cost Management      
Project Quality Management      
Project Human Resource Management      
Project Stakeholders Management      
Project Communication Management      
Project Justification Management      
Project Risk Management      
Project Procurement Management      
Project Contract Management      

Finally, Table 4 summarizes the results regarding the tools1. In general, all the tools included in the PMBOK® Guide are also present in the other two guides. However, some tools have descriptions that are much shorter than those in the PMBOK® Guide. On the contrary, the PMBOK® Guide does not include the logical framework and trees analyses (problem tree, objectives tree, and alternative tree). Surprisingly, in both the specific guides, there are very few examples of the applications of the tools in the context of ID projects.

Table 4: Comparison of the tools (A gray cell means that the tool is described in detail in the methodology; a light gray cell means that the tool is described with little level of detail in the methodology.)

Project Charter      
Critical Path Method      
Gantt Diagram      
Earned Value Management System      
Risk Analysis      
Logical Framework      
Stakeholders Analysis Matrix      
Problem tree, Objective tree, Alternative tree      

From Table 4, we can observe that some fundamental tools (e.g., WBS and CPM) are not always well described in the specific methodologies for managing ID projects; however, this does not mean that these tools aren't relevant for NGOs. As a matter of fact, PM4DEV also requires a basic certification from another organization (e.g., IPMA Level D, Price 2 Foundation), and PM4NGO requires such certification be the third level of its certifications. We can thus highlight the fact that, for a complete understanding of all the necessary tools to correctly manage a project, the PM4DEV and PM4NGOS methodologies should be complemented by the PMBOK® Guide. Therefore, a promising area of development can be represented by better integrating standard and specific project management tools in a unique methodology.

Going back to the peculiarities, it is not straightforward if and how these are addressed by the specific methodologies (i.e., PM4NGO and PM4DEV). The only thing we deduced from the literature and interviews is that the peculiarities make the adoption of specific tools (i.e., LF and trees) necessary. Also, a tool like the stakeholder matrix becomes very relevant given the high number of stakeholders with blurred roles; however, there is still a gap about how these tools and the other tools should be adopted according to the peculiarities. Questions like: How should risk analysis be made in the context of ID projects? Which are the best practices to make a reliable schedule in the context of ID projects? These questions remain unanswered and are left to the experience and tacit knowledge of project managers. Finally, from the interviews, we reported that some peculiarities (e.g., resource scarcity, need of integrated management of functions, and presence of intangible project outputs) remain difficult to be defined and measured given the lack of specific tools to managing them.


International Development (ID) projects are pivotal in the field of international aid, but have received limited attention in terms of project management research.

Focusing on Non-Governmental Organizations, this work has summarized and verified the existent literature on the peculiarities of ID projects and has analyzed their impact on the two most widespread methodologies used to manage ID projects in NGOs (PM4NGO and PMDPRO). As highlighted, ID projects do show a number of peculiarities that separate them from other projects. In particular, the theme of the involvement of different cultures and stakeholders and the absence of easy to verify objectives pose substantial challenges to the management of these projects.

From our analysis, the two most widespread methodologies used to manage these projects do consider these peculiarities as slightly adapting the standard project management approaches. In both cases, the life cycles and the processes have only limited differences from the ones proposed in the PMBOK® Guide. The main differences seem to be in the selection and the use of specific project tools; in particular, both methodologies for ID projects introduce the logical framework and significant explanations of the stakeholder analysis matrix that are not present in the PMBOK® Guide.

These results seem to be valid not only for the two methodologies examined but also for the methodologies developed by governmental organizations and described in Landoni and Corti (2011). Further analyses are needed to understand to what extent these specific tools and their use are able to satisfy the needs of these specific projects.

The results of this work could be useful to people working in the context of ID projects and to all project managers who are facing growing complexity in terms of stakeholder management, leadership, and project management in different cultural contexts. We are already studying these tools with an international survey and hope others will join us in exploring these important aspects of ID projects.

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Descriptions of the Tools

Project Charter A document that formally authorizes a project or a phase and documenting initial requirements that satisfy the stakeholder's needs and expectations.
Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) A task-oriented detailed breakdown, which defines the work packages and tasks at a level above that defined in the networks and schedules. A tool for defining the hierarchical breakdown and work in a project. It is developed by identifying the highest level of work in the project. These major categories are broken down into smaller components. The subdivision continues until the lowest required level of detail is established.
Critical Path Method It calculates the theoretical early start and finish dates and late start and finish dates for all activities, without regard for any resource limitations, by performing a forward and backward pass analysis through the schedule network.
GANTT A Gantt chart is a time-phased graphic display of activity durations. It is also referred to as a bar chart. Activities are listed with other tabular information on the left side with time intervals over the bars. Activity durations are shown in the forms of horizontal bars.
Earned Value Management System (EVMS) A commonly used method of performance measurement. It integrates project scope, cost, and schedule measures to help the project management team assess and measure project performance and progress. It is a project management technique that requires the formation of an integrated baseline against which performance can be measured for the duration of the project.
Risk Analysis An examination of risk areas or events to assess the probable consequences for each event, or combination of events in the analysis, and determine possible options for avoidance.
Logical Framework Is an analytical tool used to plan, monitor, and evaluate projects. It derives its name from the logical linkages set out by the planner(s) to connect a project's means with its ends.
The logical framework matrix identifies and communicates the logical relationships in a project by tracking the vertical and horizontal reasoning that connects the levels of the matrix. The relationship between the elements on each level of the logical framework illustrates the vertical logic that will result in the achievement of the project's ultimate goal.
Stakeholder Analysis Matrix A matrix that identifies information on each stakeholders, capturing their position in relation to their influence, interest, and their level of understanding and commitment to the project
Problem, Objectives, Alternatives Tree The problem tree provides a simplified but robust version of reality, identifying not only the core problem to be addressed, but also the effects of the core problem, and the underlying issues and root causes that contribute to the current state.
An objective tree is an objective formulation tool that depicts graphically the hierarchy of objectives.
The alternatives tree the alternatives tree communicates the outcomes, objectives, and goals intended to be pursued by the organization.


1 A description of the tools is reported in the Appendix

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