The ++ Project Start-Up

Alley in Sanaa, Yemen

It’s no secret – project start-up is hard.

In every international development organization, there are start-up specialists who devote their professional careers to this phase of project implementation because it is difficult and stressful, but if done correctly, sets the stage for a successful project. Alternatively, a poor start-up is difficult to overcome and can lead to a loss of confidence by the funding organization and the many stakeholders who are intently watching to gauge whether the project will be a good partner. It’s safe to say most development projects are set in particularly challenging locations, further endangering a successful and timely progression from start-up to program activities. This is the default setting for most start-ups.

Now add in a raging civil war like the one ongoing in Yemen (+). In this environment, the safety of staff and partners is even more of a pressing concern. The involvement of multiple (or many) contesting organizations makes straightforward tasks such as country registration or recruiting fraught with political and security challenges, many of which may not be obvious. In a culturally and socially conservative society, a legacy of factious internecine competition and old animosities can further distort an already complicated set of relationships. All of this must be understood and properly addressed in order to avoid the many pitfalls so common to starting a project in a new locale.

If project start-up in an already challenging environment with a raging civil war wasn’t enough, now let’s add in COVID-19 (+). Even in countries with advanced economies and top-notch medical infrastructure, the current pandemic has proven to be an implacable adversary. In Yemen, which is enduring a protracted civil war where the institutions of government and the social safety net have collapsed, it becomes easy to adopt a brand of fatalism that steals the potential for useful contribution to the institutions and the lives of the people we serve.

This is the scenario of a ++ project start-up. The risks are high, the challenges formidable and the results of failure are measured in human suffering rather than reputation or bottom line. We can’t change the conditions, but we can mobilize creativity, commitment and learning to deal with all these issues head-on. As we progress through the start-up of our USAID-funded Yemen Continuous Learning and Evaluation project, these thoughts are ever-present in our planning and in the steps we’re taking.

While this project won’t feed people, provide medicine, educate children or build the institutions critical for a better future, it will provide evidence that other projects are accomplishing those objectives. The data we gather will help them adapt and learn from their successes and mistakes and is a key element in safeguarding the faith and confidence of taxpayers who fund these life-changing activities.

To implement successfully, we must have access to the entire country – not just friendly places. Our team of international experts can’t travel to Yemen, so we will rely heavily on our local team, providing them with the support they require. While this is certainly not a how-to manual, the following three ingredients contribute to start-up success:

  1. An engaged and collaborative client. Although we don’t get to pick the client, we have been extremely fortunate in this project thus far. Our clients understand the country, their mission and our role. They set the tone for collaboration and listen intently when our team makes suggestions or expresses concern. Nothing can replace a great client.
  2. A team built on a shared understanding of all aspects of start-up and implementation. Again, we’ve been lucky, but we’ve also been very deliberate about selecting people with the right skills, experience and perhaps even more importantly, the right temperament. Each one of them knows this will be challenging and each one of them knows they cannot succeed on their own. They chose to be part of this despite or perhaps because it’s undeniably not easy. This goes for our local partners as well. It is far too common for international firms to “parachute” into a complex situation and immediately begin explaining the dynamics to local partners and staff. We’re not doing that. We’re trying to listen with the same intensity we enjoy from our client and to build our presence and activities based on what we learn.
  3. The right technology. Some might think this is the first or second most important ingredient and, as a technophile, I am always looking for new technologies to enhance remote management and provide better analytical results. These things are important and as a company, we’re constantly looking at creative ways to harness technology. Certainly, our remote learning, tools, geospatial methods and robust survey and data collection tools will make a huge difference. However, and this is big: if we don’t get the other things right, we’ll lose the opportunity to deploy these amazing tools.

Even under normal circumstances, we can expect to make mistakes. In the ++ project start-up, we should expect to make even more, and we likely will. What we’re trying to accomplish is a true learning process where we avoid the mistakes we can and quickly learn from those we stumble into despite our best efforts. This start-up phase is not over and possibly never will be. Over-confidence will not serve us well, but what we can say at this point is we have the right ingredients to succeed. The coming weeks and months will test our capability, our resolve and our values. We’re ready.


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