I have been involved in civil society projects funded by the EEA and Norway Grants since the very beginning, that is, a total of eight projects in Bulgaria, Latvia, Romania, and Slovenia (EEA and Norway Grants n.d.a). While being very differing projects in their focus, they can all be subsumed under the heading "social development". I believe strongly in the importance of the rationale and mission of the EEA and Norway Grants, and I am thankful and proud to have been involved in these projects in Eastern Europe, a region that used to be a white spot on my map of global project work and investment operations.
In sharing my experiences with working on these projects I find it correct to be direct, and not just serve panegyric statements. Furthermore, I do this on the basis of a strong practical background in professional work in international development aid since 30+ years, as well as Founder and Chair, Bulgarian Monitoring and Evaluation Network (Bulgarian Monitoring and Evaluation Network n.d.a).
In the majority of these projects the implementing NGO or organization had the necessary knowledge and capacity, managed the project in a professional way, and with a successful outcome. However, in a couple of projects the implementing NGO or organization did not:
- Have the required technical and administrative knowledge and capacity,
- Base their work on correct assumptions about the situation in the project area, and/or
- Handle the situation in the project area correctly (e.g., as it turned out to be more complex than anticipated – including as regards conflicts).
In this situation the role of the Norwegian partner NGO tends to become a difficult one. This basically boils down to a choice between three options:
- Not be concerned about implementation and hope for the best,
- Do nothing once the problem(s) appear, or
- Report to the Financial Mechanism Office (FMO), Innovation Norway (for some projects in Bulgaria and Romania), or the national fund operator.
I opted for the latter approach, with mixed results as regards my interactions and the outcome of the issues I reported on. The outcomes were at least partly a result of me waiting too long to report, and partly that seemingly less than correct remedial actions were taken, and that they came late.
Crucially, for me there were important lessons to be learned from the experiences of working on these problematic – even failed – projects. Those lessons have guided me in several ways, including:
- Be critical about which NGO to partner with,
- Not do work that the NGO should do, beyond a certain time period where one provides necessary training (case in point: write the funding proposal and project reports), and
- Learn the "danger signals" and act upon them early on.
The reason I share this here is because I believe that the EEA and Norway Grants should learn from successful projects as well as from problematic projects. It is actually possible that one can learn as much or more from the latter type of projects. This presupposes that there is an institutional focus on this, and that there are ways and means of eliciting this experience, evaluating it, and sharing it broadly. Judging from the published evaluation reports it is not my impression that EEA and Norway Grants has paid much – or enough – attention to problematic projects, and to learning from them.
An important aspect of this concern with evaluation is of course that it is not just the implementing NGO that makes mistakes (if "mistake" is the correct term here). The Norwegian partner NGOs are also likely to make mistakes – mistakes that, if publicly shared, would benefit future NGOs that consider getting involved in such projects. Furthermore, a constructive approach, on the part of the EEA and Norway Grants, towards providing advice to prospective NGOs that get involved in such projects would likely contribute substantially to preventing such problems from occurring in the first place, and, if and when they occur, to their successful resolution.
A couple of comments from the point of view of professional evaluation:
- The EEA and Norway Grants projects I have worked on (as well as several that I have followed over the years) have in common that they have too little or no concern with devising and using an exit strategy, and
- A good approach to organize projects, one that aids in measuring results, is to structure implementation in terms of: (i) input, (ii) output, (iii) outcome, and (iv) impact. This set of terms is an example of a logic model to project implementation. It facilitates the construction of useful and good indicators, and aid in evaluating the effectiveness of projects.
In conclusion, I am proud of my involvement in several projects that have received funding from the EEA and Norway Grants, and I would like to hope that the projects I may work on in the upcoming funding period will be as interesting and useful as those I have worked on (some are already under preparation).
(1) This is a longer version of a comment contributed to EEA and Norway Grants' Facebook page on 18 June 2018.
(2) Image credit: EEA and Norway Grants. This is the official logo, as available on their website.
Bulgarian Monitoring and Evaluation Network. n.d. URLs: https://www.facebook.com/evaluationBG & http://www.musica-mondo.org
EEA and Norway Grants. n.d. URLs: https://eeagrants.org/ & https://www.facebook.com/EEANorwayGrants/