Successful Projects–What Makes Them Work?

Posted on 2 June 2008. Filed under: Academic Papers and Research, Case Studies, Cognitive Impairments, Reports, Resources | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Ideas are easy. Any 10 disability advocates will have 100 ideas for projects to fight poverty or otherwise improve the lives of people with disabilities in developing countries. But knowing how to implement projects that actually do what advocates and funders hope they will do is much harder. So, what makes successful projects work? Why do they work? What lessons can other project leaders learn from them?

Inclusion International has released a 66-page study entitled “Successful Projects–What Makes Them Work?” (PDF format, 3.5 Mb). As it happens, their analysis focuses on projects for people with intellectual disabilities in India, Romania, Kenya, and South Africa. But its conclusions are broad enough that this guide may be useful across disability groups and regions.

Successful Projects by Anders Gustavsson and Johans Sandvin and Annika and Lennart Nilsson examines 13 different projects. Each project was chosen because it was interesting, successful, or outstanding in improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. Chapters 1 and 2 describe the research process and the national reports used. Chapters 3 to 7 provide a cross national analysis of the 13 projects, and chapter 8 presents conclusions and implications. The study aimed to answer the following questions (taken from page 8 of the report):

  • Which projects resulting in sustainable improvements of life conditions for adults and children with intellectual disabilities can be found in the four countries?
  • What are the most strategic change agents, internationally, nationally and locally?
  • Which methods are most effective at initiating and maintaining the processes of change?
  • What other factors, deliberate project interventions as well as contextual factors, are important to achieve a positive change?

Experienced leaders, advocates, and professionals may agree with some of Inclusion International’s conclusions but may disagree with others. The study’s conclusion suggests, for example, that any criteria used to measure improvement in the quality of life must be specific to the local culture. The rationale is that different cultures define “quality of life” very differently. This seems a valid point.

But then the study goes further to baldly assert, “the idea of developing a model of best practice to be applied across cultural contexts would never work” (p. 57). This seems too overgeneralized a conclusion from my view.

If by “a model of best practice” you mean “a rigidly prescribed, one-size-fits all project plan,” then I have no hesitation in agreeing. Projects that are too strict in emulating their original model adapt poorly to the unique needs of the people they serve. I also agree wholeheartedly with the study’s assertion that projects work best when they are generated by local people themselves, in response to their own ideas and passions. Projects imposed by outsiders rarely work as well, either because they are not responsive to actual local problems or because local leaders don’t support them as strongly.

But it is a dangerously false assumption to believe that projects originated in other cultural contexts can never offer lessons for leaders elsewhere. As one example (though not disability specific): some years ago, Mexico and Brazil each launched what is now called “conditional cash transfer” programs. Governments give the very poorest families cash. In exchange, parents must do certain things such as sending their children to school or bringing them to health clinics.

The original conditional cash transfer idea has now proliferated not only within Latin America but also to countries as culturally disparate as Kenya, Turkey, Indonesia, and even New York City in the United States. They help improve school attendance, child health, and family nutrition as well as helping families cope with poverty. Yes, each project does need to be carefully tailored for the local culture and conditions. But the broad concept of this program has survived the transition across cultures very well.

Surely there must be broad strategies for certain types of projects targeted at people with disabilities that could similarly survive the transition from one culture to another, even if the details must be dramatically altered.

I should hasten to point out I may be over-reacting to an admittedly superficial glance at the study’s conclusions and accompanying powerpoint programs. The flaw may well be in my reading rather than in the study.

These caveats aside, project leaders, disability advocates, and international development professionals all may find it interesting to read the common “story line” of how successful projects tend to get started. And, as mentioned further above, some of its conclusions do strike me as valid and interesting.

The 66-page report can be downloaded for free in PDF format (3.5 Mb) at:

An accompanying powerpoint program, and more detailed reports on individual countries, can be found at the Inclusion International web site at:

I first found this study by browsing the Inclusion International web site.

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    Ending poverty among and oppression toward disabled people in developing countries.


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