Can project management support poverty reduction in Africa

Robinson Akiri, Consultant, Program Manager, Africa Centre for Excellence in Project Management


Poverty in Africa is widely reported. In the United States, news sources regularly refer to diseases, droughts, famine, floods, and wars. And at the same time, IBM and other companies are investing in Africa. At this juncture of great potential and grave problems, there resides a great opportunity for the project management profession. This paper proposes that with the skilled and dramatically increased application of project management on the continent that opportunities can be enhanced and problems can be mitigated. In turn, this would lead to reduced levels of poverty.

The first section of the paper presents a brief overview of poverty. The second section summarizes a series of interviews in Mali where leading agency managers help us to better understand the nature of project management in Africa. Next, the needs of project management in Africa are presented. Finally four questions are offered for your consideration. Our answers to these questions could affect the future of project management in Africa.

Poverty in Africa

Poverty is characterized by a lack of basic necessities and a precarious daily existence where relatively minor changes in health or food supply can be life threatening. Of the 6.6 billion people on earth, 1.2 billion or about 20% live on less than a $1/day. Four billion people, or about 60%, live on less than $5/day (Rangan, 2007).

Ten thousand Africans die each day from factors directly related to poverty, such as malnutrition and disease (Sachs, 2005). Drugs that are taken for granted in the U.S., some costing as little as $0.20 per inoculation, could save many lives from malaria, TB, and AIDS in Africa.

Poverty in Africa is the outcome of a complex combination of political, social, institutional, and technical factors rooted in centuries of being at the center of a complex set of commercial and colonial exploitation. Regardless of the explanation for how poverty came to be as it is in Africa, we are proposing that poor governance is largely the current root cause of poverty in Africa. Africa is lacking in organizational and management capacities to galvanize its people and evolve viable institutions to harness its natural resources to overcome poverty. This is the basis for the focus of international development efforts on institution and capacity building.

A key aspect of Africa's competency gap is the inability to plan and management programs and projects. Project management offers a systematic approach for dealing with the complexity of poverty. It is an art as well as a science of completing complex tasks, better, faster, and cheaper, which makes it suitable for today's increasing complex and rapidly changing world. As a result, public and private institutions in the developed world have embraced the discipline as a means of harnessing innovation, solving problems and managing scarce resources to achieve important organizational and economic objectives. Africa is yet to recognize this worldwide phenomenon, and as a result has lost the benefits to many failed projects. This, in turn has led to loss of opportunities to arrest poverty, improve human welfare, and advance African economies.

The rest of the paper examines the challenges of project management in Africa, the perceived needs for effective project management, and proposals to increase project management competencies to significantly increase economic growth.

Project Management Challenges in Africa

An informal survey of 20 officials of international development agencies in Mali revealed the following problems of project management in that West African country. These occur to varied extents in other parts of the continent.

A very significant problem in Africa is the lack of infrastructure. This includes electricity, good roads, transportation, water supply, good schools, and the Internet amongst other basic physical and economic infrastructures.

Internet access can be limited and unreliable. However, Internet usage is expanding rapidly. In December 2007, a European Ariane 5 satellite was launched to serve the needs of Africa's television, telephone, and Internet needs (Dec. 22, Radio France International).

Education level is a significant factor. Training is often required to bring employees to the required standards. For training to be effective, it will often need to use traditional approaches. For example, in Mali “animators” are used to act and tell stories as part of the tradition to pass along knowledge.

The cultural and work ethics differences between expatriate and host country project personnel are potential sources of conflicts that could affect project management success. For example, family concerns and social matters may take precedence over project work. Also, host country nationals are often not familiar with the procedures of international development agencies and find them cumbersome.

The role of women in development varies on the continent. There are perceived and real barriers to integration of women in mainstream development efforts. However, women are increasingly being involved in the design and implementation of development programs and projects to enhance sustainable development. In some cases, it is still hard for women to have positions of authority, and women managers may benefit from a local knowledge of the culture to be most effective.

The framework for making decisions and organizing work needs to be well understood. As in any country, the legal framework of host country can be very important. For example, the French legal framework in West Africa makes it very difficult to fire employees. In addition, formal legal systems sometimes conflict with established traditional decision-making systems with adverse consequences for project management. In some communities in Mali the traditional leadership, or chief, can decide who can use land and for what purpose, independently and perhaps at odds with the formal government system. This may make it difficult for project managers to know when it has assured use of land for development. In Nigeria, communities are custodians of the land and they are compensated when a project encroaches on their farmlands.

Projects too often fail if they are donor driven and not based on perceived recipient demand. This means project are not sustainable and fall apart as soon as sponsorship ceases because the receiving communities were not integrally involved in the conception, planning, and implementation. Without community involvement, there is also lack of project ownership. Increasingly, development agencies such as the United Nations Development Program have adopted approaches that identify projects as elements of broad strategies and programs derived from country-wide needs assessments.

In some cases, there are conflicting priorities between stakeholders. The vision and objectives of the project are unclear and contradictory.

Projects can fail because the design did not consider the capacity and nature of the local support organization and economic, technological, and physical environments in the planning.

Project management is not part of the lexicon of many organizations in Africa. Project managers can be seen as an unnecessary expense. This situation is compounded because there are not many trained practitioners. And when project managers are trained and effective, they can be lost to an organization if funding is not secured early enough to secure a smooth transition to the next project.

There are inadequate systems for monitoring and oversight. Hence transparency and accountability are constrained. As a result, corruption may pose immense problems to the success of projects. Funds may be diverted from the project objective, leaving work uncompleted or services and facilities poorly delivered.

In addition to the issues just listed, there are risks of wars, political and social disturbances, and ineffective partner organizations.

Similarly, Austin (2000) identified the following problems were associated with the management of international development projects:

  • Limited or weak institutional capacity within government ministries to implement projects
  • Unfavorable procurement procedures, practices, and implementation capacity
  • Political instability
  • Selection of project personnel lack objectivity (often based on relationships versus competency)
  • Frequent changes in ministry leadership and employees
  • Lack of accountability and transparency
  • Shortages of skilled and experienced personnel
  • Lack basic infrastructure that is taken for granted but necessary foundation for meaningful development. This includes inadequate electricity, potable water, telephones, housing, efficient mail delivery systems, good roads, drainages, sanitation, sewage, transportation systems, and a supportive technology maintenance culture.
  • In addition projects are implemented under conditions of unstable and unpredictable government policies, regulations and laws. Foreign exchange regimes are frequently altered resulting in fluctuating project fortunes.

World Bank ex-post evaluation reports identified the following problems, which incidentally, are similar to problems common to project management in the United States (Youker, 1999).

  • Lack of shared perception and agreement on the objectives of the project by staff and stakeholders
  • Lack of commitment to the project by the team, management, and stakeholders
  • Lack of detailed, realistic, and current project plans (schedule, budget, procurement)
  • Unclear lines of authority and responsibility (organization not structured for project management)
  • Lack of adequate resources to execute projects
  • Poor feedback and control mechanisms for early detection of problems
  • Poor or no analysis of major risk factors
  • Delays caused by bureaucratic administrative systems (approvals, procurement, personnel, land acquisition, and release of funds).

In summary successful project management in Africa demands additional attention. Risk management is crucial. Cultural awareness is key. Involvement of clients and their communities in planning and implementation is absolutely necessary. At all times, it is necessary to be transparent and accountable. Selection, hiring, and retention of project practitioners are difficult. Effective project management demands proper training for employees, contractors, and clients; and commitment to systematic monitoring, evaluation, and control procedures.

Project Management in Africa—Present Needs

Project management challenges in Africa are not insurmountable. Good project management started early in the project development cycle will help address most of its problems (Youker, 1999). A project management methodology is the project manager's primary tool for ensuring quality in a project. Methodology is an integrated, cohesive, and well-documented set of repeatable processes that provide for quality deliverables through the consistent execution of practices that have been proven to work. It supplies the project manager and the entire project team with a “cookbook” for performing the tasks in the project plan (Project Assistants, Inc., 2000).

In light of the above, Africa needs support in establishing a viable framework to develop competent project managers and institutions to drive its investment in physical infrastructure, health, education, and its other development needs.

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), project management competency development entails enhancing individual and institutional capacities to achieve project management excellence. Project management excellence is the ability of an organization to deliver continuous streams of successful projects (Kerzner, 1998). A project is successful when the project output is delivered on time, within budget, within or above the customer's quality expectations, and has the potential to meet the anticipated project benefits.

PMI competency development program aims to advance project management professionalism among practitioners and their employers. Project management professionalism defines a generally accepted competency status associated with standard methods and ethics of conducting project management by individuals and institutions. It requires demonstrated commitment to acceptable project management methodology, work ethics, benchmarking practices, continued professional development, professional association, networking, and community service, among other practices that enable individual practitioners and institutions to continually hone their capabilities to manage effectively in increasingly complex environments.

At the individual level, project competency development focuses on advancing the individual ability to integrate a wide array of skills and knowledge areas including scope management, risk management, quality management, financial management, time and schedule management, human resource management, communication management, and procurement management (PMI, 2000).

Proficiency in the competency areas espoused by the PMBOK® Guide will enable project teams to effectively define project objectives and scope of work, break down the project work into manageable tasks—work packages, and schedule. It will equip the project manager with the ability to organize the work, build the project team and train project staff. It will enable proper project cost estimation and budgeting, and cost control. Project teams will be better equipped to identity, plan and control varied risks relating to poor infrastructure, communication, financing, and conflict, and other factors. Project managers will be better handle people and cultural issues, and deal with procurement difficulties, generate information to meet project management, and beneficiary needs as well as the administrative requirements of funding agencies. Above all, the skills set will enable better coordination of stakeholders, and improved involvement of beneficiaries in project planning and implementation.

At the institutional level, project management competency development is intended to position the organization to be more conducive to successful project management. It recognizes that the project manager's capability can easily be frustrated by inadequate organization environment for project management. Therefore, institutional project management capacity improvement aims to promote appropriate policies, structure, systems, and standards needed to improve investment programming, streamlining project selection and managing the needs and outputs of enterprise projects. Institutional competency development includes promoting systems for improved monitoring and performance review, including documentation of lessons learned to improve future projects. It includes the establishment of Project Management Offices and commitment to organizational project maturity development.

Just as individuals benefit from achieving personal maturity, organizations can also benefit from achieving organizational project management maturity. PMI's Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3®) provides a framework for assessing and developing institutional capabilities in portfolio, program, and project management, thus helping organizations to advance organizational strategies through projects.

Project Management in Africa—Questions for Us to Consider

The potential benefit of the project management profession in Africa is large. With over 832 million people and 53 countries (Wikipedia, 2008), Africa is second only to Asia in world population. Aid financing continues to drive many projects. The World Bank alone provides approximately $30 B of aid each year. In addition, there is growing private investment on the continent. IBM announced that it is investing $120 million in 2008 (Global Innovation Outlook, December 7, 2007, ¶9).

Project management can help ensure the more effective use of aid funds, getting more results with the available aid funds. More effective projects will improve health, education, and infrastructures. Improved infrastructures and education will enhance economic development. Economic development will contribute to reduced levels of poverty. The PMI Global Operations Center has already begun to explore the support of project management in the developing world. It has opened PMI offices in China and India. PMI does have a presence via two chapters in sub-Sahara Africa. One chapter is located in Nigeria, the other in South Africa. Yet an optimal professional response is bigger than any single organization can master on its own. If the several significant stakeholders coordinated their interests, the resulting synergy could exceed the results of the total of individual efforts alone.

  • If major aid providers worked with PMI as an independent third party to adapt a professional project management framework for the developing world, then perhaps the aid providers would be more comfortable in encouraging their recipient agencies to use sound project management.
  • If PMI worked with independent training and certifying organizations, perhaps this would enable NGOs and government agencies to use Project Management Professionals (PMPs) in response to the wishes of the aid providers.
  • If corporations and private donors saw that there was a cohesive program in place to nurture the growth of project management in Africa, perhaps they would be more likely to donate funds and resources and to participate in these efforts.

We offer the following questions for your consideration.

  1. Would it be helpful to create a “public sector track” at future Congresses to facilitate dialogue between funding agencies like the World Bank, NGOs like CARE and Save the Children, government ministries, and corporations? These collaborations could enhance the coordination between the groups regarding professional standards, training, and use of project managers in the developing world.
  2. Could we invite the PMI staff who established the offices in China and India to share their lessons learned? This may help us to drive towards a set of objective criteria for establishing a stronger professional foothold in Africa. For example, could we establish “Project Management Centers of Excellence” (PMCoE) to act as catalysts to the formation of chapters, perform advocacy through high-level seminars and conferences, and implement individual certification and institutional development programs in Africa? Could we partner with independent organizations like the “Africa Centre for Excellence in Project Management” (ACEPM) to promote the project management profession in sub-Sahara Africa?
  3. Is there a team interested in developing an extension to the PMBOK® Guide for work in developing countries? This Extension could serve to structure the “lessons learned” over the years for managing successful projects in the developing world. This in turn would help provide a basis for training and certifying project management professionals for work in Africa, and to make new project managers more effective.
  4. Would it help to create a sliding scale for membership and testing fees in order to encourage the participation of people living in the developing world? Keep in mind that in some countries, the average income is $2/day.


Aid funds continue to drive many projects in Africa. Potential for economic growth in Africa is increasing. IBM recently announced that it is investing $120 million in 2008. With continuing aid funding as well as the potential for economic growth, there exists a high potential contribution from the project management profession. Aid funds may be used more effectively. Economic development can be enhanced. Poverty levels can be reduced.

This paper offers a brief description of the nature of poverty and project management in Africa. It also offers questions for the project management community to consider. Your answers to these questions may result in increased collaborations between stakeholders in the use of project management in Africa. These stakeholders include funding agencies, NGOs, governments and their ministries, independent training and certifying organizations, and corporations. With increased collaboration, increased synergies could result. Project management frameworks and incentives could be shared between organizations. Qualified project management staff could become more available. Each group could utilize its funds without duplicating efforts of other groups, and with more confidence that the desired results would be achieved. Nurturing of project management in Africa would encourage economic growth in the private sector by providing more effective interfaces with governments, as well as by encouraging competent businesses. Overtime, ownership of projects would be transferred to host country project managers, thereby encouraging sustainability, independence, and increased prosperity in Africa.


Austin, M. (2000). International Development Project Management. Key Note Paper at the Ninth Global Project Management Forum, May 2000,

Global Innovation Outlook. (2007, December 7). Africa a new beginning. Retrieved on February 3, 2008 from

Project Assistance, Inc. MS Projects. (2000). Core Program Manual.

Project Management Institute. (2000). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Rangan, V. K. (2007). Business Solutions for the Global Poor. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Sachs, J. D. (2005). The end of poverty. New York: Penguin Books.

Youker, R. (1999, June). Managing international development projects—Lessons learned. Project Management Journal, 30(2), 6-7.

© 2008, Stephen W. Andersen, Robinson Akiri
Originally published as part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Malta



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