5 Ways To Tell if Your International Aid Project is Worthwhile, Before You Even Get Started

Most people find jobs in international aid because they want to help, they want to contribute to making the world a better place. But how do you know that an organisation you might work with, or a project you are about to launch, will actually help people? Particularly if you are just starting out. If you are new to international aid and development, or you’re about to start a project in an area that you’re not familiar with here are five questions you should be asking to determine whether or not your new international aid project is worthwhile.

Is there a need?

This sounds straight forward, but sometimes with aid and charity people give what they want to give rather than what the recipient community actually needs. Conduct a thorough needs assessment before you get started to determine what the real need is, and the best solution. As part of this, investigate sources of data that might highlight the wider needs such as national statistics, if available. Seek community input and feedback, do the people you seek to help view this as a need? Or is there something else that would have a greater impact?

Do people in the target community want this?

Is this particular project going to be the best use of resources, or would a different solution to the same problem be better? Sometimes there are several different options, and although one might suffice, others could be more effective and more acceptable to the local community, or have longer lasting impact. A classic example is whether you should give goods, or focus on wealth and job generation so that people can buy the goods for themselves.

Think about this particular intervention in your own community. If you were in the same situation would you want this, or would some other form of aid be better? Read this post for a clear explanation of how to think this through.

If you’re not sure if the local community wants this, ask them, and ask them in a way that they can be honest. With the right questions, interviews and surveys of a representative sample can be effective means of gaining community feedback. If you don’t have the budget to conduct widespread research before the outset of your project, at least consult with key stakeholders. Even better, involve people from the local community in designing and implementing the project.

Have similar projects been successful in the past?

This gives an indication of what can actually work, and how to ensure success. Although time and financial constraints can be tight in development work, it’s a worthwhile exercise to do at least a simple review of previous work. Look at industry publications, academic publications (if you have access, and open data registers such as the AITI – which can be searched by project type.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel every time, we should be building on our shared collective knowledge and learning from the successes and mistakes of others. By doing a thorough search in the project design phase you can use accumulated knowledge to design your project for the greatest chance of impact. Are you planning on implementing a ‘tried and true’ method with proven success and good assessment, analysis and reporting from past projects? If not, what can you learn from previous mistakes? How will your project differ and improve upon past attempts? Unfortunately, sometimes unsuccessful or problematic aid projects do not report their results.

In scientific research this publication bias is often referred to as the ‘file drawer problem’ where insignificant or failed research is put in a filing cabinet and never sees the light of day. In aid work, publication bias may mean that people cannot learn from past projects and avoid making the same errors. If you know of a past project that was similar to what you want to do but you can’t find a detailed report, don’t be afraid to contact someone that worked on that project to ask for tips. People are often more than happy to share their hard earned knowledge – particularly the things they wished they knew at the start or what they would do differently next time.

Will this project add to our shared knowledge about a particular issue?

It’s important for you to think about whether your own project and work will build on past research and shared knowledge. Could it provide information previously unknown about a particular geographic area, or a particular initiative? If so, think about how you will share this knowledge at the end of the project.

Will you be reporting the results and publishing the data?

It’s great if your project is effective and successful, and improves the lives of the people that are involved, but the impact is small scale if no-one else can ever learn about it. Either to use a similar methodology or to alter their own projects to be more successful. Likewise, if your project isn’t successful in the way you hoped it would be this allows a huge opportunity for other people to learn. Unfortunately the results of unsuccessful development projects are often massaged, or swept under the rug. An open data policy for your project and organisation, collecting the right data from the outset, and then reporting this data in an accessible way will contribute hugely to transparent, effective, and continually improving development work in the future.

5 key things to think about before starting out on a new project:

– Is there a need?
– Do people in the target community want this?
– Have similar projects been successful in the past?
– Will this project add to our shared knowledge about a particular issue?
– Will you be reporting the results and publishing the data so other people can learn from your efforts?

Do you have any suggestions to add? Particularly for people just starting out in aid and development work. What have you learned about determining whether or not a project will be worthwhile that you wished you new when you started out? Comment below.

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