Learnings from Implementing Social Change Projects

Click to access PIIS2214-109X(18)30199-2.pdf

Mr. Arun Maira once had shared the above article by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs on his personal experiences as the Director of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). In response I shared some of my learnings which resonated with the article. These are based on my experience while working at WOTR from 2009 to 2014 on the climate change adaptation project in 25 core villages which then expanded to 50+. The scale, diversity and integration of sectors of that project were very similar to MVP. After re-reading the mail today I thought of putting it here since I think it captured some of the key elements that could have generic applicability for social change projects. Hope you enjoy reading it.

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Dr. Sachs says, ” Third, as an island of relative prosperity in the midst of poverty, the MVP’s resources inevitably were shared beyond the MVs to the neighbouring areas, thus diminishing the spending per person and impact within the MVs.”… this is consistent with my findings when we estimated the local to local money flows in project villages and tried to assign a local multiplier. None of the villages managed to spend even 10% of the total income locally throughout. This meant all the project money and work done created an endogenous rippling effect of at max 10% after the project activities. Thus, creating an ecosystem of local to local exchanges and strengthening the local spending is key for creating higher impact of projects. I have over half a dozen case studies from Maharashtra and one from Meghalaya on this.

Later he says, ” It used to be supposed that complex, multisector projects might be too hard to implement. We found that this was not the case: there were not only synergies in outcomes, but also important synergies in implementation across sectors.”… I remember Sushil Bajpai (then Director at WOTR and my systems thinking professor at SCMLD) use to tell us that while on field please look through an interdisciplinary lens and don’ t constraint your vision by your expertise or departmental lens. That was very helpful. I don’t think that the project’s complexity, due to over 10 verticals, was a challenge for implementation. It was our inability to cut through the department/disciplinary silos and leverage the inter-dependencies between our work eg. how solar pumps were linked to water budgeting and livelihoods and gender.

While I am being critical let me also say that the project team’s aha moments started coming when the project was nearing its end. This was the most painful. Dr. Sachs says, “… but by 2007 the MVP leadership team realised that the communities would need the full 10 years to 2015 to achieve the MDGs.”… this was true for us too. We were only beginning to get the beat of the system by the time the project was over. I distantly remember the implementation team and even the villagers beginning to see each other’s perspective by the time we were suppose to wind up the project. And it is also true that the follow on funding for extension was equally poor as in the case of MVP. I suspect one of the reasons was that it was very hard to show measurable outcomes from the first phase. Thus, I like what Dr. Sachs says, ” Fortunately, the project was not based on testing the effects of a specific and fixed set of interventions. It was instead based on reaching a specific set of targets”…. If one binds the project through a log frame then we are predicting the impacts of interventions (through the proposal) and then committing to test it through implementation. This could be disastrous.