Taking Stock at the Right Time

TEXT: Aradhna Sethi - 12. December 2019

Juliana Hoxha, Director at Partners Albania, believes that failure is a huge word and discussing failure is a culture-dependent theme. She takes us through an interesting journey of understanding impact and mitigating failure, keeping in sight the expectations of donors and that of the stakeholders.

Understanding Impact: Perspectives of a Partner Organization  

“Real impact is the outcome that effects people in a positive sense,” says Juliana. "Impact is really defined by how our efforts affect people for their good. This, in fact, considers the scale of a development project: how long-term is it? Is it well resourced?"

Juliana identifies three critical questions when designing a project. She elaborates:

  1. Objective: What exactly are we trying to address? We need to be clear what our work is contributing towards. How important is the result we want to achieve for the target groups – the stakeholders affected by project results?
  2. Types of changes: What type and level of change are we bringing to the people? How and where we want to bring them at the end of the project defines the level of change. We need to then understand the situation fully before the project starts.
  3. Partners: In the Western Balkans, in any sector, there are other actors and donors. It’s important to understand who they are right at the start. This helps shape the intervention. It requires a level of understanding of the players in the field and good coordination. Sometimes, it even entails joining forces to create the right synergy and, at the same time, prevent an overlap for a better impact.

Once the above questions are answered, the next big point it whether the people are convinced of the project or not? 

Working with conviction, flexibility and local involvement

How does an organization go about its work if the people aren't convinced? 

She explains that this is closely related to the donor. Donors embrace different development philosophies while working in a country. Implementors respond to the call. "If the donor is open, we can adjust our terms and give an explanation. Sometimes, however, a donor can be stubborn and inflexible.

The Swiss donors, for example, have an inception phase. This helps investigate the ground situation. Based on the results, we create a customized mandate to resolve the issue that we get funding for. This really is the best way – and for this, the donor must be open and flexible to discussions."

Juliana emphasizes that if you don’t agree as a local, and the donor is stubborn, you should build greater awareness among all stakeholders regarding what you plan to do, why it’s important and how you plan to work with them. Of course, along the way, development projects may need to increase training, or provide exposure to exchange opportunities where the local community can do and see what the intervention provides. This also includes how, in real terms, the intervention can change their lives. They need to get a critical assessment of the situation themselves.

«Unconditional support has proven that governments and political institutions can produce quick results, but not sustainably.»

Juliana Hoxha, Director at Partners Albania

Failure: The Usual Suspects

“Failure is a big word. Some projects don’t make an impact. Conditionality is something I'm particular about – I see it work when development cooperation is associated with certain conditions,” says Juliana. For example, she cites EU integration in the Western Balkans as the biggest drive for all stakeholders, especially for the governments. This influences the general agenda, frameworks and targets to work on.

Juliana believes that development cooperation has an impact only when there are conditions attached. Unconditional support has proven that governments and political institutions can produce quick results, but not sustainably. "It’s healthy for our institutions and for us as citizens when the support is conditioned on accountability. Then, outcomes can be argued, and further support can be asked for," she says.

Juliana explains that sometimes the biggest motivation to take on and complete a project is to meet the targets of the proposed action. This, however, doesn't necessarily mean that you're putting a careful constellation on all aspects to bring a good impact. Here's where you should be aware and careful.

She adds, “Sometimes, you may be more driven by the numbers that may or may not be sustainable in the long run. You might produce a certain number of employed people and even achieve changes in the legal framework – but, we don’t know if the jobs will be still be there and if the legal framework will be implemented after the completion of the projects.”  

The lack of sustainable, inclusive and large-scale impact may be based on:

  • First, the level of involvement of stakeholders. This is quite important. Our work is specifically about the local and central governments, business, and those involved in the intervention. At times, there's a very top down approach, where donors and high government rank-holders may think a certain action is needed. Yet, the locals may not necessarily agree to that idea and its timing. 'Why now?' is a common question. In such cases, there are big gaps between implementors and those impacted. Implementation isn’t smooth, the engagement of stakeholders is weak, resistance to change is high; all of this increases the cost of effort. And, the result isn't sustainable beyond the lifespan of the project.
  • Second, local culture is an important consideration. Generally, there are international agencies or donors that come into a country with interventions based on their experience in other regions. They often think that what worked in another country will also work here. But this is one of the biggest mistakes. The capacities on the ground to absorb new processes, approaches, technologies, etc. are different.
  • Thirdly, we often promise more than we can deliver because of misperceptions and expectations that may not be realistic.

The makings of a success story

In most cases, you see success of interventions where donors have ensured a good mix of international and local experience. This leads to sustainability of the impact.

Juliana gives some concrete examples: “One of our mandates addressing local governance and democracy in Albania from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) tries to understand local realities and pays attention to local dynamics. Here, we're working with a bottom-up-approach with civil society actors and a consortium of two other entities.”

In the example above, SDC was open to the proposal of working not only with the typical NGOs, but also with individuals from within informal networks. Normally, working with civil society is rigid and aligned to NGOs, but SDC was open to the suggestion. They listened and considered the proposal.  “We were skeptical initially,” admits Juliana. But with this approach, they set up a new standard of working in this region and it’s been a success.

The example sends a strong message that it's the right of every citizen to have a say in their project. It took about 30 years for this to happen! But it was a success. Accountability isn't just the domain of formal organizations and other stakeholders, but also benefits from the inputs and understanding of the local actors.  

However, this isn't always the case. Juliana stresses that the lack of local ownership. She cites what donors – with good reason – complain of: they seem to be the only ones owning the project. There are questions raised on real impacts of a project once it's over. This happens mainly because the international players are putting their mark on to the local needs. That's why questions such as 'how can we go about addressing the issue – totally disregarding local expertise and involvement?' are important.

Juliana recognizes that sometimes we even undermine that certain processes need their own time to show result. Sometimes we're driven by the prevailing international agenda and need to ‘tick boxes’ to show quick results – and don’t consider future analyses.

«Accountability isn't just the domain of formal organizations and stakeholders, but also benefits from the inputs and understanding of the local actors.»

Juliana Hoxha, Director at Partners Albania

The ideal scenario

If organizations have the funds and the freedom to design their initiatives, it’s very important to analyze the status now, the stakeholders, and the importance of their plan. It’s essential to know why the intervention is important, why the timing is appropriate and how it'll change the situation.  

“The one simple question one needs to ask is: if we don’t do this, what will happen?’” says Juliana. The point is to clearly reflect and communicate this from the early planning stage.

Pivoting failure to success

Yes, it can happen, assures Juliana. To start with, it’s part of partners’ work to improve the enabling environment for civil society and others actors at the local levels. It's very important to engage key institutions. From her experience, Juliana observes that institutions in the Western Balkans in general, and in Albania in particular are more accountable to donors than to local stakeholders. Here's her justification: "Mostly, we realized that we were trying very hard and with little success because we were making the same mistake of being more accountable towards donors instead of stakeholders i.e. civil society sector."

Juliana adds the following illustrative example to make her points clearer: Picture two actors – organizations like Partners Albania – that are trying to advocate for high level changes in the system, being supported by international organizations; and the central government supported by international agencies to produce results. "There's little interaction between us as civil society actors and the government – both working in parallel, but not impacting the sector. This isn't the way to go."

Partners Albania has made it a priority to work strategically and engage the institutions in the policy-making early enough by building an awareness of what's needed by the civil society actors to create a policy agenda with input from both sides to mitigate problems and work together to deliver results. And this happens by acknowledging and praising the positive steps. We get caught on a negative rhetoric towards each other and get stuck in political rhetoric. This undermines the positive impact at all levels. She says, “I think we all need positive feedback to build partnerships that are positive.”

Within this area, learning through failure and implementing those learnings is the most difficult thing to do – we need to develop that culture. As part of our work with other peer organizations and institutions, this needs different layers of reflection: individual and institutional. This needs an honest and deep personal reflection on your own actions.

“At the organizational level, we try to do this by way of regular assessment of our progress as a first step to minimizing failure," she says, highlighting the fact that taking stock on regular basis is critical to see how organizations work, and whether they create an added value which may or may not have been intentional or something negative.

By building safe space for individuals of the team and for institutions, partner organizations enable to take risks and experiment for improvement. It’s easier said than done – but it's important to build ownership to maintain sustainability of the impacts.

What's often highly helpful is to be open and to discuss challenges and failures as we go along and see how we can work together to address those challenges. We need open communication within the team and the partners. It doesn’t happen automatically – it has to do with the culture of leaders or the management teams of projects to a large extent.

Juliana opines that there should be mechanisms in place to design initiatives and support learning through failure, as learning doesn’t happen incidentally. To take stock, share, get input from within the staff or outside stakeholders, learn from others – that’s the biggest deficiency in development corporation today. "We all try to reinvent the wheel without looking around at similar cases and challenges. We should be able to learn from them through critical assessment, considering the individual differences, of course. And not forget to appreciate and acknowledge, wherever praise is due," she concludes.

Read more on  Impact and Learnings from Failure.

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