How Will We Ensure Our Projects Are Successful?
As threatened in my previous post, another key ingredient to mission success that I am going to discuss is Design, Monitoring and Evaluation (DM&E). The development community has focused its attention increasingly on optimizing DM&E to ensure that individual projects are worth their time, effort and money in the long run.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the burgeoning Counterinsurgency effort found a similar need for effective, thoughtful DM&E as the number of military and joint civil-military development projects increased exponentially.
Many of these projects have been of the Quick-Impact Project (QIP) variety: fast turnaround, simple solutions, local results, limited in scope and time. There are many reasons why QIPs have been favored over longer-term, larger-scale projects: limited expertise in more complex projects, limited timespans due to deployment cycles - perhaps, above all, the desire to quickly change local dynamics in order to reduce violence and enable more long-term projects.
The imperative to optimize DM&E applies even more acutely to QIPs. In their exuberance to 'do something', combined with the novel and untrained-for experience of essentially being a local community's mayor, many a soldier and civilian development worker alike has spent significant amounts of money on rushed projects that collapsed under the weight of poor planning and execution. Many of the right lessons have been learned from these early projects, but a lesson learned doesn't always mean a lesson applied. What remains is a bitter aftertaste of these earlier projects and persistent anxiety about repeating past mistakes - which wasted countless millions of dollars.
A major shibboleth of development in Afghanistan is that we mustn't just consider the basic soundness of how to execute a project, but its "second- and third-order effects" -- which is a fancy word for the long-term consequences of such a project. Because the Commander Support Program fills a niche that requires us to specialize in quick projects, and because of our nation's (and international partners') many documented failures in the QIP realm, we are going to be very much focused on optimizing our internal DM&E processes. We want to milk every last drop out of the resources available to us. And we want to make every project have the best-possible consequences for both the Afghans and the soldiers/Marines we work for.
That means being realistic in our own DM&E process, being competent, being thorough, and remaining in constant communication with our stakeholders about their needs and results. Yet we will also have to be able to act fast and adhere to the maxim that processes are handrails. Outcomes are ultimately the only things that matter.
Of course, the preceding paragraph made me think of this:
It's easy to write a fancy paragraph about excellence. Simultaneously, there's only so much I can boil down a complex subject in a blog post. I'm not going to sugarcoat the difficulty, or simplify the complexity, of successful DM&E, because that would be dishonest to both you and myself. So I'm going to leave it here before I give you too much pathos and not enough substance.
This post gave a basic overview of why we need to optimize our DM&E. In the coming month or two, I will follow up with concrete examples of how my initial projects went through their design, execution, monitoring and evaluation stages. Hopefully, I will be able to cogently describe to you how these experiences influenced, or will influence, the DM&E processes in the projects that then follow. Describing these project experiences should in turn help you gauge whether the donor money spent by Spirit of America is spent well.
My next post will probably explain my views of how Spirit of America's Commander Support Program fits into the concept of humanitarian neutrality.
In the meantime, if you have any comments or suggested readings on DM&E - both military and civilian - my email address is