Project Management Institute

International development projects--challenges and opportunities



From social development to infrastructure, international development projects face their unique challenges. Problems that cause many project failures attribute to institutional rather than technical issues. In order to transform the challenges to opportunities, international development projects should be managed using proven tools and techniques, similar to standard projects.

International Development Projects in Turkey

Turkey is becoming a power player in the region. Not only is Turkey becoming a donor in international development (ID) projects, it is also a recipient of ID projects. As project management is gaining importance in Turkey, consequently proper attention should be paid to ID projects, and they should be managed using proper and proven tools and techniques. As a consultant working with Turkish- and U.S.-based companies, the author has seen the trend of project management, especially in Turkey, and it is becoming more visible every day.

Turkey has been one of the largest donors of Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and in 2007, Turkey provided US$0.6 billion next to Saudi Arabia with US$2 billion (Development aid, 2009). In addition, Turkey is becoming a power player in the region with a strong tendency to provide offerings to Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Arab, and South European economies.

International Development Projects and Standard Projects

Just like standard projects, which are mainly in construction and IT sector, an ID Project is defined as a temporary endeavor with a definite beginning and end to produce a unique product, service, or result. In addition, an ID project receives its funding through multilateral international development agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or government agencies in developing countries. ID projects may target poverty reduction, infrastructure, utilities, agriculture, health, nutrition, democracy, environment, and social development. In that sense, ID projects are different from international projects because there is no funding requirement coming from multilateral international agencies for international projects, and they can be executed in developed countries as well.

Lavagnon Ika (2012) identified the problem areas in ID project management, attributing many project failures to institutional rather than technical issues. The complexity of change management, especially in institutional and organizational areas, in addition to the high rate of ID project failures due to poor planning and poor design, inevitably brings up the importance of project management knowledge and having a common language among the project stakeholders and team members.

Project management tools and techniques that are used in standard projects cannot be applied to ID project management 100 percent of the time. This is partly because the life cycle of ID projects are different those of process- and procedure-based standard projects. That being said, the “standard” project management literature can and should be utilized during design and implementation of ID projects, as there are similarities between standard and ID projects. These similarities are mostly on time, procurement, risk, human resources, and stakeholder management related tasks.

These are some of the common challenges faced by both standard and ID projects:

•      Complex project objectives;

•      Resource limitations;

•      External risks;

•      Crosscultural differences when managing multicultural teams, for example, individualism and masculinity;

•      The differences in concept of time, when working with geographically dispersed teams; and

ID projects may possess one or more of these items:

•      External driving forces such as international politics and currency exchange;

•      Political and legal system of the country and their stability/instability;

•      Potential social unrest, post-disaster/post-conflict/post-war situations;

•      Generally intangible nature of projects;

•      Financing approval comes in the middle of the project life cycle;

•      Complex stakeholder management due to donor relationships which involves international multilateral, governmental and/or NGOs on financing and technical assistance context;

•      ID projects lack the market and profitability pressures; and

•      Unclear role of sponsor(s) and project supervisors.

Status of International Development Projects Today

ID projects have always had challenges, especially in Africa, due in part to poor project management. For example, the World Bank has invested more than US$5 billion in approximately 700 projects in Africa over the past 20 years. The project failure rate is more than 50 percent (Dugger, 2007).

South Eastern Turkey's Ilisu Dam, planned to be built on Tigris River, aimed to have a 1,200 MW capacity power generation. The start date of Ilisu Dam project was summer 2006 with completion planned for 2014.

Ilisu Dam Project

Exhibit 1 – Ilisu Dam Project (

South Eastern Turkey's Ilisu Dam Project had its share of ID project challenges. In 2009, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland withdrew their export credit guarantees, citing that the Ilisu Dam Project has failed due to non-adherence to the World Bank environmental and heritage standards. As much as we believe that Ilisu Dam Project will be completed, since it is not completed on time and on budget, it is still considered as a failure in project management terms.

In a video (, Julian Parr, the Regional Manager, South East Asia for Oxfam GB, says “The challenge is to get from a pilot scale to a large scale, to be able to roll that out and replicate, and that is where development fails and breaks down. For far too long, civil society has not looked to work with the government; it has critiqued it, it has tendency to undermine it by providing services that government would be providing, but we have now seen a change in this.”

Making big plans and having big goals, such as eliminating poverty, is one of the pitfalls of ID project leaders. Falling short of implementing these strategies is unfortunately an unpopular result of these big plans. For example, 60 years and $2.3 trillion later, the aid industry is still having difficulty reaching a noble goal (Ika, 2012). Smaller budget and size projects in ID/aid projects, in return tend to provide more specific, homegrown solutions, such as getting medicine to dying children. Therefore, it is fair to say that ID projects, when customized, scaled, modified, and adapted to local cultures, have the potential to be successful.

Identifying metrics and coming up with solid performance indicators is another challenge for ID projects due to the generally intangible nature of ID projects. The number of ID projects that have provided for monitoring progress against explicit performance criteria is relatively small. This, in return, makes monitoring and evaluation of goals rather difficult. The power sector challenges in Turkey is a good example of ID issues repeatedly identified in successive projects and they often remain unresolved.

So far, we talked about the momentum and increased recognition that project management is starting to gain in Turkey and other countries, in addition to challenges they bring. We emphasized the need for proper attention to be directed toward ID projects, as they should be managed using proper and proven tools and techniques. We also touched upon things such as the common challenges that ID and standard projects are facing; the complexity of project objectives, resource limitations, and monitoring and evaluation.

These are some challenges specific to ID projects : external driving forces, political and legal system of the country and their stability, potential social unrest, post-disaster/post-conflict situations, generally intangible nature of ID projects, timing of financing approval, complex stakeholder management, governmental and/or NGOs on financing and technical assistance context, lack of the market and profitability pressures, unclear role of sponsor and project supervisors, and difficulty in identifying metrics and solid performance indicators.

The use of proper tools and techniques in ID projects is one of the sine con qua ways to success.

Challenges in Detail

In construction, a well-known high-risk industry, it is easier to adapt risk management techniques. However, when the projects face social unrest and political/legal system instability, even in a structural and process driven environment, such as a construction project, the challenges are multiplied.

In recent years, Chinese construction companies have been encouraged by the country's “go global” strategy and have been joining the international markets, as per Zhang and Wei (2012). China and Turkey have been two of the most active countries in Libya's construction projects prior to the fall of Gaddafi regime. Since the Libyan crisis, foreign construction companies in Libya not only experienced operational discontinuity but camp attacks, robberies, looting, injured staff, and damage as well. Outstanding claims are approximately $40-$60 billion dollars according to the Financial Times. Corruption is having its effect on security, which is leaving the companies with more concerns. Chinese construction companies did not buy political risk insurance services prior to the Libyan crisis; partly because they were limited and partly few insurance companies could provide advice on risk management in China. About 15 Chinese government-owned enterprises will be back in the region following the end of the crisis. This time they are putting more emphasis on political risk rather than commercial risk, which they had been focusing on before the regime change. On the other hand, due to previous experience in the region, 150 Turkish construction companies will be able to receive their claims as per Libyan Prime Minister's instructions, reaching up to $1.1 billion (Turk Muteahhitlere Odeme Plani Hazirlandi, n.d.).

A video discusses the Chinese government's approach to construction projects in Libya: (

The current state of ID projects, is not all that bleak, obviously. There are groups, NGOs, and individuals who are focused on improving their project management skills. In a video, Ntombi from World Vision discusses her experience of the PMDPro of PM4NGOs: (

For an ID project to be successfully completed, on-time/on-budget while reaching the goals set at the beginning of the project, the solutions and techniques that standard project management has been using can be implemented by customizing to the needs of ID projects.

Navigating through Traps

There are some traps ID projects frequently fall into, such as one-size-fits-all approach and lack of project management capacity within the project team and supervisory ID agencies.

The standard project management literature may tend to create one-size fits all trap at times; however, it acknowledges the specificity of each project. To break this trap and acknowledge the need for customization of ID projects, a hybrid approach is recommended where the traditional and political methods are utilized.

The lack of project management capacity is a trap any ID project can easily fall into. For example, without identifying who will be responsible for collecting, processing, analyzing data or when will these data related activities take place, it is not easy to plan the monitoring and control, let alone executing it to utilize the data for betterment of the project and meeting the ID agencies’ and sponsors’ requirements. For example, training and workshops that create a common language among project team members, while emphasizing the importance of resources in monitoring and evaluation, can help navigating through the traps. When on the ground, these workshops do not have to be too technical. To the point real-life examples and templates, even if they are not using the sophisticated IT tools, can well be more effective than not having a tool at all.

Particularly, in post conflict, post war cases, the ID agencies reduce their supervision efforts; hence, the probability of success of the ID projects fall drastically. Therefore, quite contrary to the current situation, the project supervision efforts should increase in post conflict situations, especially to avoid mismanagement of bureaucratic performance. In addition, it is essential for ID agencies and multinational groups to speak the same project language and include more people with project management skills, instead of keeping accidental project managers in teams (Ika, 2012).

To be specific, the initiation, planning, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, control, training, and closure steps should be thought through, planned, and articulated with customization of the ID project in mind. In addition, once the common language is created among the stakeholders, the success rate of ID projects will be higher.

Promising Work in Non-Governmental Organizations

A group of humanitarian relief and development organizations such as World Vision, Care, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, and Plan International have formed a team to improve the capacity of NGOs operating in the developing countries based on principles established by the Project Management Institute. The modification of principles took place and formed an international NGO called PM4NGOs (, which cooperated with LINGOs, a consortium of NGOs focused on sharing learning resources and experiences.

For example, PM4NGOs held training in Uganda, where exercises of scope, stakeholder analysis, and planning based on the Project Management Professional (PMP®) credential have been executed.

Training in Uganda

Exhibit 2 - Training in Uganda (

A video ( discusses the PM4NGOS initiative, where the goal is increasing the effectiveness, efficiency, and impact of international NGOs by working together and collaborating with private sector, as well as reducing duplication of efforts, increasing return on investment and enhancing the quality and design of project management capacity. More information can be found through PMI Educational Foundation website (

Navigating crosscultural differences on international development projects

How to navigate through crosscultural differences?

For example, a Turkish entrepreneur who moved his business to the Washington, DC, USA, metro area explored the area's culture and networking opportunities through soccer. He volunteered to be a soccer coach to high school kids.

This gave him the chance not only to understand the culture, but also provided him the network through his soccer players’ families. Being involved in his players’ lives, he was able to understand the challenges of their families. This also gave him a set of new clients. Another venue he chose was association memberships. This not only increased his visibility but also helped him understand the culture as well as expectation of potential clients.

In addition, Emily Braucher, founder of ReFresh found out that projects that have been implemented for the Peace Corps projects simply were not sustainable. In a video, she discusses navigating crosscultural differences. After asking herself how to implement more sustainable projects, she started working on some communication tools. The model is based on a systemized understanding of a development project, which has human, environment, and technical aspects on the three corners of the triangle.

The current state in ID is that there are many tools that are known and being used, yet they are not integrated. NGOs have solutions out there; they know ways to filter water or address the needs of the people on the ground, yet they are not integrated.

Collaboration is not a new idea and we need to get better at it. Including local voices in project design is the first step. When we say local voices, we are referring to the people in the field and on the ground. It brings its own challenges, of course. For example, local voices did not fully appreciate the time the participatory efforts consumed. Also, most issues are social justice and they did not know how to handle the issues. In addition, it was difficult to have women's participation in a male dominant environment. Misunderstandings between world-views were another challenge. In addition, the stigma of working with foreigners is not an easy task to concur.

Having focus groups could be a good start. Identifying who needs to be there is the challenge. In some male dominant countries, women may not be raising their voice in a co-ed group. Therefore, asking questions is not enough, but ID project managers need to know how to ask questions. For that, working together with local partners is crucial. Work around crosscultural communication does not only entail the language, but the perspective. Intercultural communication and anthropology are a big part of resolving challenges, but we do not have the time to cover all these aspects in this paper. What we can easily say is that, cultural differences between engineers or among the same professions around world are not as great as that of between races, countries, and genders, etc.

This is a great opportunity for increasing the success of ID projects, because communication is in every step of the projects, from initiation to closing. So, if a common language is created, which is proper project management tools and techniques, inevitably ID projects will result in success.

Development aid. (2009). Retrieved from

Dugger, C.W. (2007), World Bank agency finds its Africa projects are lagging. Retrieved from

Ika, L.A. (2012, August). Project management for development in Africa: Why projects are failing and what can be done about it. Project Management Journal, 43(4), 27-41.

Kerr S. (2012, July). Companies treat Libya with caution. Retrieved from http://www.fLcom/cms/s/0/71721f18-c5cd-11e1-a5d5-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2NxA6hq5c

Nurol Insaat Projeleriyle Buyuyor. Retrieved from

Orman ve Su Isleri Bakani Prof. Dr. Veysel Eroglu, Ilisu Baraji'nda Incelemelerde Bulundu. (2012). Retrieved from

PM4NGOs Board. (2011, December). Retrieved from

Tekinel, E. A. (2012a, September). International development projects - Part I. Retrieved from

Tekinel E. A. (2012b, October). International development projects - Part II. Retrieved from

Turk Muteahhitlere Odeme Plani Hazirlandi. (n.d.).Retrieved from

Zhang J., & Wei, W., (2012, August) Managing Political Risks of Chinese Contracted Projects in Libya. Project Management Journal, 43(4), 42-51.

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© 2013 Esen Akter Tekinel
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Istanbul, Turkey



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