The difficulties of building successful development projects

By Sophia Heinrich

Conducting development projects in communities in need is an honourable task. However, setting up projects that have a long-term positive effect is challenging and if not done right can even have a negative effect. But why do projects fail? And how can we do better?

Why do development projects fail?

In a development project, the starting point is always with two opposite groups – the outside (often foreign) helpers and the local community. And that is already where the difficulties start. In most cases these two groups come from different backgrounds, have had different life experiences, or even just speak different languages. All this can make a good communication very difficult. Although the helpers want to do good, their goal might be perceived badly if they fail to communicate well enough. Simple misunderstandings can lead to conflict and even resentment.  


A common mistake for engineers development is arriving at the community in need with the assumption that their solution must be superior to the way thing are done locally. This lack of respect can quickly lead to rejection from the local community and ultimately lead to a failure of the development project. 


And how can we do better? 

We now know that there are great differences so the goal must be to understand these differences and use them for a joint success. 


Often the cultural differences become apparent first. For example, varying perspectives on time from one culture to the next have to be accounted for. While in western society everything is done as quickly and efficiently as possible, this might not be the case in the local community. Instead, time is spent on different needs. Therefore, stressing on a deadline can be counterproductive. To work together effectively, both parties need to adjust their time management and come to a work schedule that does not lead to conflict. 


Next to the cultural differences the context of the local living situation is very important for a better understanding of the community. The political landscape influences many areas of day-to-day life. For example, the support of the local government can be key in gaining support for a development project. But also, the socio-economic context can be an important factor for understanding the community. Researching the average income of a household or the services provided (from schooling to infrastructure to public services) can provide a valuable insight upon arrival in the community. Lastly, the psycho-social context is important for understanding the motivation of the community to participate (or not) in a new development project. 


If all these factors are known, they can be accounted for. Instead of accidentally angering the local community, the unique qualities of both cultures can be combined to develop long lasting projects that increase the quality of life. 


A positive example

Now we know how it should work in theory - good communication is key - but what does this look like in real life?

A development project that has had a long-term positive impact is the Materials Beneficiation Center set up by Green Corridors in KwaMashu, South Africa. Their goal is to collect waste materials and using them to generate jobs and income for locals. 


This ‘Green Paver’ is produced by the Materials Beneficiation Centre in KwaMashu and consists to 87% of recycles materials.


Many different materials are collected from non-recyclable plastic trash that is littering beaches, to illegally dumped building rubble to alien invasive plants or even clothing waste. Every material is processed locally using environmentally friendly methods. Then these different waste materials are combined with cement to create ‘Green Pavers’ that consist to 87% of recycled materials. These ‘Green Pavers’ are sold, and every tenth paver is donated to pave communal areas for example in schools. 


In this project every step is beneficial to the local community and generates long-term economic benefits. Harmful trash is removed, jobs are created, and communal areas are improved. Furthermore, everything is designed to be conducted locally and with the support of the local community. 


This project shows that it is possible to generate positive change with a development project – if it is done right.


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