by Namia Akhtar 9 July 2020
Much has been said about NGOs ’ role in state-building capacity. However, there are little reflections or little research examining the management structure within NGOs. Drawing on my experience of working in the development sector in Bangladesh, I have seen projects miserably fail due to ineffective management. In developing countries like Bangladesh, the dearth of professional expertise, non-professional work environment leads to project failure. A local NGO where I briefly worked at the beginning of my career was eventually forced to shut down as the donors were not satisfied with the project outcomes. The organization had extremely high turn-over rates, with most employees barely lasting three to six months in a work environment entangled in vicious work politics. It was a workplace where professionalism was substantially absent, and employees had no specifically defined roles or working hours that lead to its closure. The undefined job responsibilities, non-flexible work hours lead to a drastic decline in productivity and eventually brought it to a closure. This story is far from being uncommon.
Most projects arising out of complex partnerships often fail to address their development targets as skilled professionals are not often put in place. Amidst these, there are notable exceptions—projects that have stood out due to strong internal governance. Management and organizational strategies play a significant role than previously imagined in terms of realizing development priorities. These ideas might not be of much relevance n the developed West, where professionalism is not a matter of concern, as most organizations are managed with sufficient professionalism due to the presence of a highly skilled workforce. The West has a highly skilled workforce prevalent by the Human Capital Index and developing countries like Bangladesh have an inadequate supply of skilled workforce as universities do not adequately equip graduates with practical work-oriented skills. As such, professionalism remains mostly absent in the developing south, making it difficult to attain development objectives. Bearing in mind some of these management difficulties, I take the opportunity to write about one of the most well-managed projects in Bangladesh, which made a name for itself in the health sector development program—SPRING/Bangladesh.
This essay is built on my experience of working at the USAID funded project Strengthening Partnerships, Results, and Innovations in Nutrition Globally (SPRING), a global nutrition project implemented in sixteen countries across the globe focusing on improving the nutrition and hygiene status of pregnant and lactating women (PLW) and children under two. The main implementing partner in Bangladesh was Helen Keller International (HKI), with the other major partner was Save the Children International (SCI). The project was implemented across 40 upazillas (sub-districts) of Khulna and Barisal in Southern Bangladesh with an additional five local implementing partners, CODEC, Banchte Shekha, Dak Diye Jai, BRIDGE and DORP.
SPRING/Bangladesh is an important point of reference due to its strong reputation within the donor agency of USAID and by the project’s capacity to embed certain policy interventions such as the use of tippy taps [i]in state institutions like the Directorate General of Health Services. Its smooth collaboration with several stakeholders deserves close scrutiny as it was possible due to good internal governance. External collaborations and partnerships are affected by how organizations are internally governed. A project that has several partner organizations make internal collaborations highly complex. Nonetheless, SPRING/Bangladesh was able to simplify these internal complex partnership arrangements by creating a shared identity that resulted in better collaboration with its stakeholders.
The top management of SPRING/Bangladesh, Elizabeth Williams, and her subsequent successor Aaron Hawkins carefully crafted a strategy that eliminated the potentiality of unhealthy competition from arising from among its two main implementing partners organizations — Helen Keller International (HKI) and Save the Children International (SCI). The key to eliminating organizational competitiveness was to formulate a common project identity, i.e., the SPRING identity. One of the key strategies involved keeping the SPRING employees in one workstation rather than stationing staffs at their respective hiring institutions. For instance, the head office of SPRING was accommodated within HKI’s ( primary implementing partner) office in Dhaka. Subsequently, the divisional headquarters in Barisal was located within SCI, whereas, in Khulna, the main office was stationed in HKI. These offices were evenly distributed between HKI, SCI, and its five local partner organizations. But in each of these offices, SPRING staffs were segregated and kept aloof from institutional responsibilities. All SPRING staffs, regardless of which institution they worked for, wore the green badge and used a shared SPRING email account for communicating with one another. This was a unique practice of SPRING/Bangladesh, an approach that was not adopted in other SPRING implementing countries. Through this practice, a unified SPRING identity was embedded within the consciousness of the employees that significantly reduced any possibilities of institutional conflict.
The creation of the collective identity facilitated collaboration between the teams, enhanced internal communications within the team, and also enriched communications with stakeholders that helped in building external ties with the government. Aaron Hawkins, former Chief of Party of SPRING/Bangladesh, said, ‘ It would have been confusing if our employees called themselves Save SPRING, HKI SPRING, Bachte Shekha SPRING, etc. It would have caused confusion while collaborating with the government departments.’ Hence the construction of this collective identity helped in establishing a team spirit, enhancing efficiency through eliminating unhealthy competition. At the same time, it established better communications with SPRING’s numerous partner projects, as well as with the relevant government departments.
Organizational strategies are important factors that determine the outcome of projects. Strategies can help attract the brightest minds and also contributes to high success in retaining employees through fostering team motivational levels. It is the single most crucial factor in realizing development outcomes. My experience has shown that aid can be utilized appropriately through efficient management in organizations; therefore, harnessing good management should be the priority of development organizations. Hence, donors should focus on building professionalism in local NGOs, arrange training programs, and short term stays abroad for a managerial post to hone their skills. SPRING/Bangladesh constituted of highly skilled professionals at the management level, signifying the importance of qualified professionals in the management committee to yield good development outcomes. Managerial skills are significant in determining project outcomes. Therefore, it is critical for this expertise to be grounded in Bangladesh’s local NGOs.
Namia Akhtar is a graduate student of the Department of Political Science of Universität Heidelberg, Germany. Before coming to Germany, she worked for a few years in the development sector in Bangladesh. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: https://akhtarna.wordpress.com/
[i] Tippy tap is a handwashing station made with plastic bottle and a net bag. Here is the link to the tippy tap and how to build it. https://www.spring-nutrition.org/publications/tools/how-build-your-own-tippy-tap