Transferring project management technology and implementing it in the developing world

U.S. Agency for International Development

This paper highlights the principal characteristics which exist when working in a developing country, and how this environment affects the transfer, understanding, and application of project management techniques.

Introduction

Change is not a new concept to man. Ever since he first ventured abroad and made contact with his neighbors — long before recorded history — man has been both an “agent” and a “recipient” of change. Thus the nations of the world today represent many diverse and distinct acculturations of man’s attempts to make his neighbors behave like himself.

Man is a conceited creature, however and while trying to change others, he himself resists change. In fact, he will go to great lengths — defying all reason if necessary — in order to preserve his own status quo. On a national scale, the most persistent of these behavioral patterns form the core of “tradition,” while the more amorphous, tenacious traits make up the “national character.”

Man can adapt to almost any environmental and/or situational change if he is compelled to do so, even to the extent of relinquishing some of his precious traditions. However, his national character is much more impervious to outside influence. Historically, major change in situation and environment has only been brought about by force. Either external force, with invading armies, colonization, and subjugation; or internal strife resulting in forced migration and assimilation into other alien cultures. Without such driving force, however, things tend to remain “as is,” with only minor, incremental changes occurring.

Economic Development

Economic development is a peaceful, but nevertheless forceful attempt to accelerate the process of change from the status quo. Because of different historical patterns of development, many countries exist today under conditions ranging from highly industrialized to bare subsistence. In some countries, curious admixtures of both development and underdevelopment coexist.

In most countries today economic development is widely accepted at the national level, particularly by those countries at the lower end of the scale. Some voices have been raised in opposition to this theme, and others caution that there should be limits to such growth. Nevertheless many of the lesser developed countries have committed themselves to pursuing a national policy of accelerated economic growth, and actively seek assistance in order to improve the social and economic well-being of their inhabitants.

Prerequisites for Growth

The desire for economic growth as an abstract “national concensus” is insufficient to bring about such change, however. It requires “Will,” “Skill” and “Wherewithal” at all levels — from the highest policy maker to the lowest program implementer. Possession of these three factors, in adequate combinations, is what separates the “developed” from the “developing” countries. Without a sufficient supply of these ingredients, attempts at growth flounder, and of the three the most often lacking is “Will.” Many things affect the motivation of a people, and will be discussed more fully later on.

The “wherewithal” — Capital assistance in more technical terms — can be obtained from external sources. Direct bilateral assistance is offered to developing countries by many of the developed nations. Also, multilateral aid is available through regional institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, and on a wider scale, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, (colloquially known as the “World Bank”). Thus, given a program to implement the lack of capital need not be a constraint to economic growth.

Skills

Programs don’t come in nice neat packages — they have to be wrapped that way! The approach to wrapping is a major task in itself, requiring extensive review in the form of technical feasibility studies, and analysis of alternatives, before a workable plan can be developed.

Much emphasis has been placed upon this as planning is the first step in development. Since economic planning is an intellectual pursuit it has attracted the elite in underdeveloped countries; most of whom received their training from developed “Western” institutions. Consequently, most underdeveloped countries interested in economic growth have created indigenous planning organizations and institutions, and have the skills to plan and prepare programs to attract foreign capital. The lending institutions also provide some technical staff assistance to ensure that the documentation meets its own particular criteria, and that their funds will not be squandered on uneconomic, ill-conceived or poorly developed programs.

Organizational management skills and people with a capability to implement projects are harder to find. The traditions of most underdeveloped areas are not conducive to producing the individual traits that an effective Project Manager should possess and the developing society needs. Many underdeveloped countries are simply not aware that a specialty such as Project Management exists or that management requires formal competence in administrative skills, separate and distinct from the technical specialty under consideration. People with both technical and managerial talents are invaluable to any country.

Most of the developed countries, on the other hand, do possess professional Project Management Specialties — “experts” in the process of managing change in their own environment. Furthermore, they can usually be spared, for short periods at least, to assist in stimulating change in other countries. It is to this group then, that my paper is directed.

The Project Manager’s Role

Once on the job the Project Management “Specialist,” in most instances quickly learns that he will not be a project manager to manage a project, but rather be an advisor to someone else — a “counterpart” in the host government. In this role the advisor labors under a major handicap. He has no authority to act directly or intervene in line operations. He has no staff, and no power to hire, fire and/or redistribute personnel and other resources as he thinks necessary. He only has the power of persuasion which is dependent upon the personal relationship he can establish with his counterpart. To do more than this would constitute “undue influence in the internal affairs of another country.” Nevertheless the sponsoring organization expects that as an “expert” in project management, the advisor will be able to exert considerable influence on the course of implementation. Quid pro quo leverage, such as commodities is often a useful means to this end. As an advisor your first task then is to become accepted by your counterpart, and make him aware that you have something useful to offer.

The Assisting Agency

Part-time Effort

Traditional technical subject matter and policy level advice can be, and has usually been, dispensed to host country counterparts with only intermittent contact. The sponsoring agency usually establishes a headquarters from which to operate, and an advisor meets his counterparts through periodic conferences, training sessions, field trips, and review of documents — technical and administrative — that the counterpart and his advisor route to each other for “coordination.” It is difficult to convince the sponsoring agency headquarters staff that project management advice, even in a vicarious role, cannot be dispensed as a part-time task if it is to have any significant impact upon a project’s on-going operations. The only way they will be convinced is to be told, firmly and often.

As an advisor, you are a part of the sponsoring agency staff. As such, the local headquarters relies upon you to provide information about the progress of the project both for its own internal edification, and also to respond to numerous requests from the “home office.” In addition, as an expert on the scene, you will also be consulted by (and required to spend your time responding to) those of your own people seeking to develop ideas for new programs and projects, but who haven’t the time or the skill to do so themselves, and/or need your review or clearance. Furthermore, merely because you are now overseas, you will be expected to become an authority on the country, its culture, its foreign and domestic policies, key personalities, and major events of the day which may be completely unrelated to your work. Finally, you will be expected to play host to innumerable home office staff who are visiting the country for a couple of days and would like to know first hand what is going on. Thus, there are many distractions before getting down to the daily “routine” of operational project management. Home offices should recognize the need for staff support under these conditions.

The Host Agency

Complete Project-Life Responsibility

All too often, the various stages in the life of a project are compartmentalized, with different people, groups of people, and/or offices responsible for each, but with no overall continuity. Thus the Planners relay their plans to a Project Manager for implementation. The Project Manager only does this however after adjusting the plans to fit his perception of reality. Particularly distressing is when a Project Manager’s tour of duty is shorter than the duration of the project; especially if a replacement fails to arrive until several months after his departure, for the new arrival then may have radically different opinions about the direction the project should pursue! At the minimum there is a hiatus while the project is reviewed and the new project manager brought up to date. The problem is compounded when there is a turnover of both host country and advisory project managers. Unfortunately, not much can be done about this.

Trained Staff

Civilized nations by their very nature impose great burdens upon themselves. In order to function, they need a large investment in “overhead” to manage and monitor their affairs. There is no easy way to do it; some ways are merely more difficult and costly than others. Policy makers can rapidly exhaust the capability of their staffs to keep track of all the “vital” data needed for making sound policy. So organizations grow! Scarce trained staff to perform the tasks for which they were trained, and are then promoted to higher levels to become administrative functionaries. This in turn generates a new round of requirements for trained personnel. This is not peculiar to underdeveloped countries. Most developed countries do this also, but it is a luxury which underdeveloped countries cannot afford. They are hard pressed just to locate skilled people to perform necessary tasks, particularly outside of the capital city. Thus even with skilled people on the top, any project’s implementation is likely to be carried out by un-derqualified and/or unqualified personnel. Breaking the jobs down into definable tasks and in-country workshop training is not a perfect solution, but is the best I have to offer.

The Social System

Communication

In most countries, you will experience difficulty communicating with your counterpart and his staff. This is not because they don’t wish to understand you, but simply because they cannot. They speak a different language. At the upper policy echelons you usually do not encounter as much difficulty. You can usually find several people at that level who speak fairly fluent English, albeit with a strange accent that takes an educated ear and constant straining. Oftentimes though, from the context of the words spoken, you wonder whether they know what they are saying, i.e. do the words mean the same to them as they do to you. In any event, they usually have a much better command of your language than you do of theirs.

Interpreters where available, are generally of the host country. When working through an interpreter however one tends to stick with easy concepts, simply stated and forget the finer points. It’s just too laborious to try getting the point across any other way. You hope that through some form of osmosis, the refinements will eventually become apparent.

In conferences or on trips with host country personnel, after the opening formalities you will often find yourself completely left out of discussions. Conversation flows from one to the other in the local vernacular with only an occasional sentence translated for your benefit. Learning the language (even poorly) will help.

Another major difficulty is getting points across so that you know they are received and understood. Most underdeveloped societies only communicate one-way; — Downward! Field trips — getting out to see first hand what is actually happening in order to evaluate and reassess progress, (and perhaps even restructure things at the head office) is an alien concept in most cultures. Travel is usually extremely uncomfortable and directives are generally issued from the comfort of the capital city. Nevertheless making such trips will prove invaluable to you, and eventually to your counterpart. There is little or no constructive feedback and none is expected. Direct confrontation is simply not socially permitted in most societies because of fear of “loss of face.” There is usually an extensive informal communications system operating by which people “read” each other. In these circumstances, leading questions are picked up very quickly and played back in a positive manner regardless of the facts. Therefore they should be avoided. At the same time, counterparts will overreact to any implied slights and criticisms they may read into your comments and/or actions even if they were unintended.

In project management where the name of the game is to maintain the pace of operations and effect change, identifying weak elements in the chain is all part of the job. However, this usually leads to confrontation! If this is a “no-no” — the Project Manager is severely hamstrung.

To anyone accustomed to working in a direct manner this can be exasperating. However directness is more tolerated from Americans as our frankness is widely recognized as a national characteristic, although strongly worded memos may be grounds for having you P.N.G’d.*

Caste System

Another thing you realize after awhile is that there is a “Caste” system which influences many of the actions of your counterpart and his working environment. Every culture has a caste system which is apparent to a greater or lesser extent. You will not be able to change it but you must learn to recognize it so that you don’t spin your wheels unnecessarily. Remember also that you are probably woking with a representative of the elite class but he may have little more in common with you than he has with many of his fellow citizens. In his culture he may be considered superior to you and hold a condescending attitude to both you and your “advice.” His government may have requested your assitance, but the chances are that he personally did not.

Indeed he may even resent your presence. In some cultures, individuals avidly seek new knowledge as the route to success. In others, to seek training is regarded as an admission of inadequacy and consequent loss of status.

Isolation

In any underdeveloped situation, Murphy’s Law has full reign. Nothing works properly! Systems are incomplete and always breaking down. Replacements are usually unavailable, and take an indeterminable time to obtain. The sophisticated back up system and support structure which we take for granted in the U.S. just isn’t there. The facade may exist in some cases, but the system doesn’t operate the same. Under these circumstances, the tendency has been to develop small “oases” of self-sufficiency, rather than rely on larger networks and systems which would be more effective in the long run.

This “do-it-yourself” mentality is great to a point. It is evidence that the “can do” attitude does exist. However, it is very costly and defeats the overall objective of development for only the wealthy can afford this independence. Once their needs are satisfied, there is little incentive to support an overall system to serve the remainder of the public. Thus one finds islands of opulence and modern sophistication in the midst of seas of squalor and abject poverty.

Furthermore, in an underdeveloped environment there is usually no tradition of successful accomplishment. Thus there are no large scale examples around to demonstrate that things can be better. In fact usually the opposite is true. The landscape is often littered with the remnants of the previous project failures which only serve to reinforce the existing attitude that you can’t get there from here!

It is not unusual to encounter conplacency with things the way they are; intensive pride in minor achievements, and a tendency to rest on one’s laurels after the slightest accomplishment. Praise works wonders in these cases and can be used to spur people on to greater efforts.

Personal Behavior Characteristics

In addition to the tendency to be easily satisfied, one finds behavior patterns which run counter to our fundamental concepts of effective project management. Exasperated advisors often complain that there just is no sense of discipline among the people with whom they are working. Line jumping rather than waiting one’s turn is a minor, but typical example. Lack of follow-through is another. But of all the problems that plague a would-be project manager in an underdeveloped environment, the most serious is probably a seeming indifference to time. Yet management of time is probably the single most effective means of project control, and within the scope of anyone to employ.

Time Management

In most corners of the world, people have fundamentally different concepts of time from what we as Americans take for granted. Perhaps you don’t realize how time oriented we are in the United States. We have calendars on the wall, planning guides on the desk, diaries in our pockets, even calendars on our wrists; and we are completely lost without watches. We schedule our work time and our play time, and are usually on a “deadline” of some kind. We live by time constraints either externally, or self-imposed. More importantly, our whole sociological environment is time oriented. Everyone around us schedules. If you get out of work five minutes late, you’re likely to miss the bus, or the car pool, or whatever.

To most countries, it seems we are always in a hurry since they are not so time oriented. Time is an approximate thing at best. Some of the trappings of “Western Civilization” may have been adopted in form but not always the substance. Usually it’s done to humor the American, not because they believe in it themselves. Most people do not even have watches! The “9 o’clock” meeting may start at 10:30, if enough people show up! I have had the frustrating experience of teaching a PERT/CPM course, where despite the fact that we were doing critical path analysis, TEs, TLs and all the rest of it, the group consistently came in very late after each break. Academically, they accepted the methodology, but never applied it to their own situation even when pointed reference was made to it.

Scheduling is artificial even though it is a very useful concept by which we manage things, and get a lot done. There may be no real reason why something has to be finished on a certain date, other than that someone else asked for it then. A road building project for instance may be delayed a dozen times before it is finally completed. A slippage in a part of the project may result in a delay of a few days, or even weeks, and cause a lot of inconvenience to the would-be users, but when the process picks up again, it usually moves forward from that point on.

There are cultural differences also which have to be considered. At the lowest working level the need for another day’s guaranteed employment often overrides a superior’s desire to get finished “on time,” or “ahead of schedule.” Thus a work backlog is consciously created. An advisor with an appreciation of this can often resolve the problem.

Summary

These, then, are some of the problems a Project Manager Advisor encounters in an underdeveloped environment. It is especially difficult to bring about change because implementation means not only getting a technical job done, it means creating change in the socio-economic development where peoples’ lives, traditions and beliefs are affected. Changes that may seem desirable at the national policy level may meet with strong resistance at the sociological implementing level. In this environment the project manager must analyze the situation to isolate factors retarding change, and then consciously apply persuasion (and force if necessary) in order to overcome them. If he fails in this he may accomplish nothing, for though a technically sound project may be completed, unless it is willingly accepted by the intended beneficiaries, development will not follow.

Conclusion

Not all these aforementioned difficulties are insurmountable. But they do make project management a lot more challenging than merely accomplishing the technical aspects of the job.

The negative aspects must be accommodated by each project management advisor in his own style. There are some advantages too. For instance, one major advantage is that an advisor can usually bypass the formal bureaucratic system completely, and get ready access to top policy levels if need be. This advantage should be used sparingly however for if overworked you will wear out your welcome and it will cease to be useful.

Unless organizations and individuals appreciate some of these constraints to technological transfer and implementation in a foreign, developing country environment, they will make unrealistic assumptions about the degree of success they can expect to have; may make some serious blunders in the manner in which they proceed, and both the donor and the recipient may be disappointed in the results.

*Declared persona non grata - and asked to leave the country.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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