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Lessons Learned Story: Supervening forces, persistence, and shelf life

Description: Few international development projects unfold exactly as planned, and what happens after the project produces its knowledge products can be even more unpredictable. In the worst of cases, outside forces come to bear that completely destroy the chain of causation that makes up the theory of change. The question then may be, can a new chain be constructed? Can the theory of change be repaired? Do a project’s knowledge products have a shelf life? Do they go stale?

The forest governance assessment in Liberia, carried out by PROFOR in cooperation with the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, offers a case example. PROFOR carried out a participatory governance assessment and produced its report in 2013. The report identified priorities in anticipation of a program of governance reform to prepare the country to participate in REDD+.  What came next was the Ebola outbreak of 2014–2015. This disrupted international assistance and government function.

All has not been lost, however. In 2016, Liberia revised its Strategic Environmental and Social Assessment prepared as part of REDD+ readiness and drew on the governance assessment report. This year, the “Strengthened Regulatory and Institutional Arrangements for Implementation of REDD+” component of the World Bank’s Liberia Forest Sector Project is directing attention again to the priorities identified in the assessment.

As another example, the assessment described for the DRC (a governance deep-dive sub-case) had its influence blunted by political concerns: presidential elections, tensions with the opposition, and a tough political climate. These led to most of the reforms being put on standby, where they largely remain.

As a third example, in 2014 the World Bank developed a project to engage stakeholders in exploring the dynamics of the timber trade between Russia and China. The trade is known to involve a large volume of illegally harvested timber. The project bridged two Bank regions and had the support of Bank regional and country offices as well as the forest agencies in the two national governments. A fair amount of effort went into project design and the writing of a preliminary knowledge product (the project concept note). The Bank formally approved funding for the full project. The effort then ran into a supervening force: the leadership of Russia’s federal forest agency changed. The new head placed a hold on all new projects, to study and reconsider them in light of the new leadership’s priorities. Since then, there has been no movement to allow implementation and no clarity on whether the agency intends to permanently withdraw approval of the project.

Discussion: These cases invite three questions. Are supervening forces like these always unpredictable? When they are predictable, can we anticipate them in project design? And to the extent that they are unpredictable, can we nevertheless design projects and their knowledge products to be more resistant to them?

The three cases suggest that some supervening forces are quite unpredictable (e.g., Ebola). Others we can predict may recur but on no particular schedule (the change of leadership in the Russian Far East case). Still, others are so likely that we can call them foreseeable (the elections and political uncertainty in DRC).

Unfortunately, the nations most in need of help are often the most prone to political and other upsets. In fact, instability is often a contributing cause of their need for assistance.

What can we do about all this? One thing is to take a hard look at the context where we will be working and ask ourselves what we can reasonably foresee and what we cannot fully foresee but still guard against.  Indeed, we already ask project planners to assess risk, but assessing risk sometimes becomes a rote exercise and an afterthought rather than an integral part of project planning. Perhaps providing project planners with some case studies of the costs of poorly anticipated risks would encourage them to give risks more careful consideration.

Another path worth exploring is seeking ways to extend the “shelf life” of our knowledge products. Liberia shows that supervening forces do not always stop progress permanently.  Persistence in pursuing a development goal can pay off. In the DRC case, it is accepted that the governance assessment was well conceived and executed and when the time is right the TTL will revitalize the findings and recommendations. When the country is ready to resume development, the old knowledge products can still be influential if they maintain currency.

These few cases do not offer any general rules on how to assure relevance over the long run, but in this uncertain world of development, we should make an effort to build long-term relevance into our knowledge products.  

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