Fund People, Not Concepts

Leader on sand dune
(photo credit: Hamed Saber)

Have you ever seen a really great project run by a terrible leader? I never have. I’ve seen competent development work done by bad leaders, but not great work. I’ve never seen it in a company, either. No amount of quality systems can make up for a lack of good leadership at the top.

But we give our grants and contracts to development work based on the structure of the project, as though the logframe and the staff chart are all that matter. This is a problem. It’s not the shape of the staff chart that matters, it’s the names you find in the chart.

We should give money to people who can do good things with it. I once worked with a Ministry of Health official who ran one small department of the Ministry of Health. He was committed to his work, and to his country, and he was flat-out brilliant. He was my go-to advisor for everything my project did, not just the stuff that involved his center. He had ideas – great ideas – about how to improve health in a whole range of different ways.

He should have been running a project. Some donor should have been bankrolling him to improve his department and then the health of the people in his country. With appropriate safeguards, of course. Reporting on how the money was used and what impact it had and so on. But he could have done amazing things with the right support.

The project I work for now, which I won’t name because nothing I write here is their opinion etc. etc. blah blah blah, does really good work. I am proud to be part of it. But our chief of party is the smartest human being on earth. She leaves Marilyn Vos Savant in the dust. She could be doing anything, and she’d do it well. Someone should give her the development equivalent of a MacArthur genius grant (note to self – find way to nominate boss for MacArthur grant) to use her big brain to attack development problems any way she wants to.

Instead of supporting people who can get things done, we support structures. Some of that is an effort to support fragile states and build democratic institutions, and we should keep it up. Some of the support for structures, however, is just intellectual laziness, and a desire to do things how they have always been done. That needs to change. I know this sounds like a recipe for corruption, but anything is a recipe for corruption if you do it badly. We can still ask for financial accountability, and for proof of results.

Innovation comes from individual people with ideas and passion. We should find and support those people to bring change in their countries and communities.