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A Vietnamese minority group farmer using a common mobile to facilitate her business communications. Mu Rieng Hamlet, © 2010, FAO.
Post-Covid-19, low income countries need to terminate their participation in the globe's irrational debt spiral

Virtual workshop - Part 2
2nd-3rd May, 2020
John Penrose,
International Development Correspondent,

A virtual workshop to identify critical institutions to help accelerate recovery in the agricultural sectors of low income countries has drawn attention to another epidemic in the reliance of too many low income countries on "irrational debt".

The issue of debt and options for recovery of agricultural production with an emphasis on food was covered in part 1 of this article.

This part 2 covers the second day of the workshop which was concerned with state-of-the-art techniques for lowering the cost of technical assistance via remote support while sustaining or even improving project cycle management.



Kenya meat trader using a mobile phone. © FAO.

A weekend virtual workshops was convened by the Development Intelligence Organization to undertake an initial review of the progress of Covid-19 and to identify essential actions to create a positive environment for recovery in social, technical and economic terms within the context of sustainable development. This DIO workshop was organized to identify "packages" of practical solutions to minimize the economic costs of necessary changes to achieve steady recovery in agricultural production, with an emphasis on food, while mitigating the effects of Covid-19.

Whereas other forums have tended to hold back from proposals, because of uncertainty as to the overall impacts of Covid-19, it was agreed that there are some basic requirements that with, or without Covid-19, need to be strengthened. The following is drawn from the workshop conclusions covering the second day of this two day event, contained in the DIO press release.

The potential role of remote technical service support

In this workshop remote technical service support referred to are the communication of information and expert guidance and advice, specialized calculations and detailed technical analyses, the identification of strategies, prioritization of tasks and decision analysis, report production and presentations. The sources of information and knowledge are located at some distance from those receiving support made possible by using telecommunications and the World Wide Web (Internet) making use of existing devices including mobiles, tablets, laptops and PCs and other forms of reception and transmission acting as user interfaces.

One of the most obvious and useful penetrations of information technology and communications in low income countries has been the take up of mobile phones. These have been used to assist farmers coordinate their purchase of inputs as well as to find buyers for their output. The widespread penetration has had a significant impact on producer cash flows and prosperity. The reach of this mode of communication has, in many cases, enabled farmers to lever better prices rather than be limited to the offers from local buying agents. Not much was added in the workshop concerning mobiles and the emphasis in this second day session was more concerned with addressing the connected issues of:

  • Project identification

  • Design and production of an optimized plan

  • Implementation management

  • Monitoring and evaluation

Covering these activities, three important question were addressed in the context of remote delivery of support via the Internet (W3-world wide web):

  • Can the costs of professional technical support to the agricultural sectors in low income countries be reduced effectively through remote delivery?

  • Is it possible for remote technical support to result in equivalent outputs of support currently provided by conventional means?

  • Is it possible for remote technical support to result in an improvement of on the current standards achieved in project cycle management so as to achieve sustainable agricultural development impact in low income countries?

The Agenda 2030 situation

The most recent UN Sustainable Development Report (2019) has confirmed a general failure for Agenda 2030 to advance three Sustainable Development Goals:
  • SDG 10 - Reduce inequalities
  • SDG 12 - Responsible consumption and production
  • SDG 13 - Climate action
OQSI, in its research and development work to improve project design procedures noted that, already in 2016/2017, teams were having difficulty in adapting to Agenda 2030 priorities in the form of SDGs because of a lack of direction from governments. So Agenda 2030 got off to a slow start, also because of the normal annual flow of new projects and funding was hardly going to see impacts within 5 or 6 years. However, with or without Agenda 2030, the normal process is for governments to elaborate priorities and sustainable strategies for actions based on existing national level indicators. On a more general basis, policy framework documents have been produced for many years in collaboration with development organizations such as the World Bank. However in the case of the SDGs referred to above, the 2019 Sustainable Development Report confirmed the fact that over 65% of the indicators selected under Agenda 2030 for SDG 12 and SDG 13 have not yet been specified. As a result governments and funding agencies lack any precise orientations of the specific policies and/or types of projects required. In the context of Agenda 2030, this has created a gap in the required orientation necessary for policy planners and project team designers. The resolution of these indicator gaps is a matter or urgency and should be addressed as a priority. For these not to have been resolved after 4 years of operations of Agenda 2030 is disappointing. However, there has been an awareness of the need for sustainability, particularly within the last 50 years, so the failure to shift modes of human activity towards sustainable solutions represents a general failure.

Alternative routes and better collaboration

The only way to make progress is for project design teams and policy planners to work closely together on a case by case basis. In the end, success in national achievement in advancing the wellbeing of constituents is rooted in better ground level actions in community-based initiatives through well-designed projects adapted to local conditions and addressing constituents in need. This type of collaboration can work effectively if project designers have access to examples of viable demonstrations of success in achieving favourable climatic impacts through alternative production systems that are feasible in the production zones of the country concerned. Project team members also need to have access to appropriate analytical tools to simulate and compare projections of output and climatic impacts for production options. The benefit of the project team-based sourcing of comparative evidence is that policy planners can obtain more realistic options which can be scaled up to national dimensions to assess the resource requirements associated with different degrees of advance of any particular SDG.

Improving the focus and response to local details

Although it is not common practice for project teams to be involved in identifying national action priorities, the fact that national indicators for several essential factors have not been specified requires that practical procedures be applied to develop useful strategies through alternative analytical routes.

Such ground level analyses, conducted on a coordinated basis, can provide a more precise means of identifying stakeholder requirements across a nation and fine tune actions according to local needs.

Remote systems technology has an important role to play here in establishing a portfolio data warehouse (see The significant potential of portfolio data warehouses in revolutionizing agricultural innovation ) to which governmental and field practitioners can refer in accessing detailed information on national needs. Although specialists are required to contribute to decision making, the precise recording of recommendations linked to well-specified circumstances is an important discipline. The OQSI has contributed to the promotion of this approach by adding the portfolio data warehouse to its recommendations for online systems. The OQSI refer to this as the Project Memory. In a project portfolio, correctly configured Project Memories create a Portfolio Memory as a valuable resource. The OQSI recommendations for this system are contained in what they call a Real Time Monitoring and Evaluation system.

A necessary revival of the essential functions of extension systems

Project teams require inputs from different types of expertise such as agronomy, health, nutrition, soil science and economics. Information technology systems can help provide orientation on necessary questions that need to be answered but there is a need for individuals with a systems approach who combine local knowledge of "what works" with a handle on advances in technology so as to provide guidance on what is sustainable, less risky and more efficient, for example. This is the role of extension agents and the remote access to and delivery of advancing knowledge, combined with the local knowledge of extension personnel can provide a highly competent input to project design and national strategies. The workshop participants all felt that because of the need for a level of coordination of knowledge of local circumstances, a revival of extensions systems was an important factor in securing successful remote support systems.

Tentative Comparative Costs
Visit and cloud-based technical support

SEEL has cautioned interpretation of this graph which represents average ranges for different service scenarios. Any particular comparison depends on the direct comparison of the specific types of tasks associated with any support.

An assessment of the comparative costs of project cycle tasks conducted on the basis of conventional technical support involving visits and support with the same content provided remotely. In practice there is a range of competence in visiting teams and the work involved can vary significantly. However, concerning the comparative costs of international technical services with services delivered remotely shows a significant advantage in favour of remote services. Naturally the concern here is the utility value of services paid for, or value for money, as opposed to simply reducing costs.

The normal costs associated with international technical support include company fees, consultant income, travel and accommodation. The costs here can vary from €750 to €1,250 each day. A considerable amount of time is used up in assignments with those providing technical services reading project documentation. Frequently all of the necessary information is not available and time is taken up accessing this data. As an order of magnitude estimate, SEEL have calculated that the direct comparison of visit-based support with remote support applying various scenarios. Remote delivery comes out at between 50% to 35% of visit based technical support. These figures are highly dependent upon the configuration of the remote systems used and the nature of the technical support. At face value, this difference represent a very significant reduction and saving in funding requirements.

An interesting example was provided on how familiarity with advanced remote support systems applying OQSI-type standards can help local teams to gain a more effective control over their operational support costs by learning how to make use of the Project Memories and Portfolio Memories.

The convenient coincidence of this approach is that it is completely adaptable to the situation created by Covid-19. However, beyond Covid-19 the more relevant analysis is the comparative quality of visit-based and remote technical support.

Are the results of remote technical support equivalent to conventional support?

Based on detailed analyses of the quality of project designs prepared under conventional technical support regimes by OQSI and others1, the conventional technical support regimes have not performed well with around 35% of projects failing. In relation to production and consumption and climate action, most have resulted in no sustainability gains. In general, income disparity, an important aspect of inequality, has increased. It is often difficult to identify the specific expertise required to resolve some of the complexities involved in Sustainable Development Goals that require multiple strands of activities. The reality is that the standards achieved by conventional project design and implementation cycles are very variable and, as such, do not represent clear standards in practice. This is because although procedures are identified their execution is highly variable in terms of team competence and quality of the information gathered and utilized.

The impact of learning while applying procedures using
cloud-based analytical tools on output costs and timing
compared with visit-based technical support

Lines V1-V2-V3 and R1-R2-R3 show the trajectories of costs and time to complete procedures based on visits and remote operations respectively. Based on three repetitions or reutilizations of analytical tools by remote operators. Costs of remote operations decline significantly with each repetition whereas visit-based operations in the medium term rise.

PLEASE NOTE: These curves are for illustrative purposes only and represents a simplified single curve representation in each case when operational curves while of the same shape are separate.

The impact of learning while applying procedures using
cloud-based analytical tools on output efficiency and quality
compared with visit-based technical support

Lines V-V and R-R show the trajectories of efficiency and quality of process and output based on visits and remote operations respectively. Based on three repetitions or reutilizations of analytical tools by remote operators. Quality of remote operation output can surpass that of visit-based output as the cumulative knowledge in the Project/Portfolio Memories increase.

PLEASE NOTE: These curves are for illustrative purposes only and represents a simplified single curve representation in each case when operational curves while of the same shape are separate.
Much of the work undertaken by the OQSI has been to address this reality by unraveling the causes of variable quality of execution of procedures under conventional systems. First of all there are gaps in the required procedures which the OQSI has corrected in their due diligence design procedure which ensures that all relevant factors are taken into account and given due consideration. This is something the common project cycle management guidelines do not really achieve2. Besides gaps in procedures there is also a problem that conventional guidelines do not come with access to the required analytical tools to complete the procedures. This is the result of the legacy of paper based documentation being the central medium of communications. In the past, the large gap in the provision of appropriate analytical support was "handled" through the employment of consultants and experts. However, the growth in number of projects has stretched requirements beyond the levels of existing and available expertise beyond reasonable limits of any quality control system. This was already evident in the mid-1990s and early 2000s when results of evaluation showed that more than 70% of approved projects has no cost benefit analyses and those that had some form of assessment of economic rates of return, only appeared to have been completed correctly3. The costs of such expertise have also increased and, as a result, it is vital that project teams have access to the correct analytical tools to carry out the required analyses to the required standard.

The trend has been for many technical aspects of project design being less well specified and the emphasis has shifted to project preparations that emphasize a plan and activity schedule. Indeed most software available for project cycle management does not contain any support for the more technical and economic aspects of project design including gaps, needs and constraints analysis. Most project cycle software provides support for scheduling and acts as a container into which project teams input information on pre-configured projects describing what will be done in how much time using specified resources. The question as to whether the project in the plan is the best and most feasible in relation to established evaluation criteria is often not answered and "performance" is monitored to compare performance to the benchmarks established in the "plan". As a result, the utility of sometimes quite elaborate analytical tools such as "dash boards" create interesting content but are often reporting on the performance of projects whose design is defective and therefore whose performance benchmarks leave much to be desired. Even evaluations often limit their focus on assessing if a plan was delivered without asking if the plan was the best for the job in hand. The practice of arranging monitoring and evaluation assignment, mid way or at the end of projects is too late to detect defective designs.

Can remote technical support improve sustainable agricultural development impacts in low income countries?

By combining a project cycle management function with technical and economic design support through appropriate analytical tools it is possible to provide a far superior and balanced technical support to project teams and policy makers on a remote basis. If the analytical tools provide support for national level constraints analysis as well as procedures, with analytical tool support, to review all of the project level constraints then the likelihood of identifying a close-to-optimal set of projects to address specific Sustainable Development Goals is high.

Cloud-based tools, besides being useful can also be highly instructive and assist users to build up a high level of competence in undertaking specific tasks such as calculating carrying capacity limits, returns on investment, selecting the appropriate crop variety for a given bioclimate and many other tasks which to date would have required different specialists. Remote systems can store cumulative knowledge at Project and Portfolio Memory levels so as to build up a rich source of accessible knowledge. By integrating support for monitoring and evaluation procedures it is also possible to establish more widely applied and higher and consistent standards of evaluation across portfolios.

Economy on economy

Because of the simulation basis of analytical tools the depth of appreciation of the likely capabilities of project design options result in project teams gaining a very detailed appreciation of their proposed solutions. In general, this avoids over and under optimistic proposals and avoids wasted development funds resulting from reduced sustainable development impacts. The intensive learning process associated with the "instructional simulation" mode of operation also helps people in different disciplines learn to apply additional analytical techniques broadening their capabilities at a high professional level and securing demonstrable experience in applying advanced state-of-the art tools and procedures. Over time and through effective use of Portfolio Memories and liaison with extension personnel, the requirements for higher cost expertise will decline as a result of the expertise having migrated to the local environment and human resources involved. The result is the economies delivered by remote systems can help provide an evolution in further savings through increased efficiency while improving the competence and practical outcomes delivered by local expertise.

Advance notice of SDGToolit
More for less

The fundamental requirement of sustainability with a growing human population is more for less use of natural resources. Certainly remote technical support services can deliver a technology that delivers more knowledge for a lower cost as a foundation for gaining more human wellbeing through lower impacts on climatic conditions and consumption of natural resources.

At the moment most of these capabilities remain as significant gaps in conventional systems supported by visit-based technical services support. Fortunately the OQSI has only released its recommendations when proven to be practical and convenient. This practical approach is the result of having implemented and tested operational cloud-based modules of each procedure by SEEL-Systems Engineering Economics Lab. OQSI has not only created improved procedures for remote service delivery but has contributed to a major advance in the state-of-the-art in support of economic development. This has advanced the ability of remote technical support services improving their relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, impact, resilience, coherence and sustainability. This represents a potential for a major improvement in project design quality and advancement of capabilities of project teams and policy analysts through the delivery of the most appropriate tools to do the job.

Update: April 2021, Leading edge cloud-based system launched

The George Boole Foundation Limited has annouced the launch of SDGToolkit a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) cloud-based comprehensive project cycle and portfolio management system based on the work of SEEL and complying with all OQSI recommendations. See: "Advance notice on the SDGToolkit" . Also an advance notice (pdf) can be accessed by clicking on the image on the left.

1  OQSI, "The impact of trends in the international development environment on project performance", DIO-GBF, 2020; McNeill, H.W., Belko, F., "Towards more effective Project Management", Decision Analysis Initiative 2010-2015, GBF, London, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-907833-02-4.

2 Most project cycle guidelines adopted by leading multinational and bilateral development agencies are very similar in nature and structure; most do not provide much technical guidance concerning project design, optimization, risk and sustainability analysis.

3  World Bank, "Cost-Benefit Analysis in World Bank Projects", Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank, 2010.

Posted: 20200528
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