A recent Foreign Policy article explained how American tax dollars were being wasted in Iraq on development programs such as distributing bicycles to children, French pastry classes, and creating a Baghdad Yellow Pages (perhaps the most arbitrary). The commonalities among these projects were that they were poorly thought out, they were implemented with top-down strategies, and they all failed miserably. In fact, the bicycle wheels were later seen on a wheelchair to support an injured Iraqi child — at least they were being put to use. To mitigate the Iraqi example and implement pragmatic strategies in its place, development agencies should start by focusing on the leadership within their own organizations. If development organizations and projects are to succeed, it is essential to ensure that the people who are designing and implementing projects are chosen for their leadership qualities above all other factors.
Effective leadership in development design and implementation boasts many characteristics—most of them not very different from other industries; they include listening, passion, growth, communicating, learning, being proactive, patience, and work ethic. And although these characteristics are vital to success, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success.
Moreover, effective leadership is a precursor of effective management. Effective management requires that things are done right, while effective leadership requires doing the right things. The Iraqi projects, for instance, were implemented by individuals with decades of management experience on development projects in the region, yet they still fell short. The problem can instead be attributed to misguided leadership from the higher-ups.
The trends in the Iraqi example are dangerous because they are repeated throughout much of the development industry, and often on a larger scale. Regardless of your personal beliefs, you should care because the concepts of foreign assistance — whether implemented by governments (Iraqi example), multi-lateral institutions, or NGOs — aren’t going to simply dissipate. Considering that we live on a planet with finite resources, we must be accountable for the ways we allocate resources.
Listening and communicating are perhaps the most essential yet most lacking ingredients in the composition of leaders. Problems and solutions are often designed on behalf of the people they intend to help. In some development programs I have encountered, representations are often established that speak of the beneficiaries rather than for the beneficiaries. If long-term project sustainability and structural changes are indeed a priority, then the discovery stage must become a more participatory practice by involving all relevant parties in the dialogue. This participatory approach provides a foundation for win-win agreements.
Moreover, development organizations should conduct a thorough analysis prior to project inception. Yet, far too often, people begin developing solutions before actually defining the problems. It becomes the classic example of making the dog jump without first asking the question, “Who, in fact, wants a jumping dog?” These are the residuals of miscommunication and can often be circumvented through enhanced understandings. It is evident that the Iraqi example fell short in this category.
Growth and learning are other key ingredients in a leader’s composition. The most effective leaders are able to practice constant learning while figuring out ways to do more with less (in competitive and uncertain financial times, this is an imperative). Much of this success comes from working laterally instead of vertically — partnering with other development organizations that possess comparative advantages. The great minds of any movement, campaign, business, or institution have all realized that you don’t have to be powerful to start, but you do have to start to become powerful. The successful development organizations are no different, and the most competitive organizations will be those who embrace their shortfalls through a process of constant learning and refinement.
Successful development organizations should spend more time on seeking out specific leadership qualities in employees, like having an mba in project management, rather than on the projects themselves. These leaders need to be implemented at all levels, especially in larger organizations where the command chains are large and the participants are many. In this article, I have highlighted just a couple of characteristics that are imperative for effective leaders. I realize that both the programs and individuals who implement them are key ingredients to solving the development puzzle, but projects are designed by people, and ineffectual leadership from the top precludes success at all levels, no matter how good the project management is. Leadership characteristics such as good communication, listening, growth, and learning will lay the necessary foundation and provide the appropriate incentives for communities to follow through after the oasis of Western funding and training inevitably desiccates.
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