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April 01, 2009

Peer Group processes – good or bad for innovation?

Donor agencies, bilateral and multi lateral alike, have enthusiastically developed peer group processes that they claim lead to improved aid outcomes. No longer, so the new wisdom says, can a lone ranger jump ahead of their colleagues, dream up their own wacky project and push it on the poor of the world.

Undoubtedly there is truth in this. Sector specialist, external experts and contractor staff  can, and often must, participate in peer group meetings. Senior staff - often the task manager's (TM) boss - chairs the peer meetings. This all sounds very reasonable and has probably reduced the number of “dud” project/programs. But are donors now strangling innovation through an over controlled, lengthy and highly prescriptive process?

TMs need quick agreement at peer group meetings because their work performance is to a large extent assessed on the basis of whether they can meet the assigned time lines for submitting the project for final approval. Their work is also judged by how they perform at the peer group meetings. Here in lies the problem: innovative project designs can slow things down – particularly given that many at the peer meeting have a range of interests and are not under pressure to deliver the project: policy, risks, and the views of individual specialists hold sway. Innovative design can also generate debate and criticism.

This all leads to TMs normally adopting a risk adverse approach to their work - tick all the boxes; and don't do anything to alienate the peer group or cause the process to be extended.

Sure the projects that are prepared this way are safe. But is innovation encouraged? I would argue not. The time has come to take a critical review of this "process" approach to aid and ask whether a different approach to project/program design and to evaluation of performance could produce better results.