The hard bits: Where can experts and donors make a difference?
By Fenton Whelan
How change really happens on the ground.

Donors spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year providing technical assistance to developing countries

Some of this assistance is excellent. Most of it is well intentioned. But much of it fails to really make a difference. Many projects are successful failures – they achieve their own goals, but fail to really make a difference for the people they set out to help.

Why? Because most projects, most technical assistance, is focused on the easy bits

When you reform government services, there are easy bits, and there are hard bits. Identifying problems is the easy bit. There are lots of them and if you talk to the right people they can tell you all about them. Developing workable, scalable, battle-tested solutions is the hard bit. Writing reports is the easy bit. Most governments have thousands of them already. Making change happen on the ground is the hard bit. Piloting in a village or a school or a clinic is the easy bit. Scaling up to tens of thousands of villages, schools or clinics, is the hard bit.

The easy bits

The hard bits

Creating recommendations

Implementing recommendations

Writing reports

Affecting change

Identifying problems

Developing solutions which work

Deciding what to do at the start

Recovering from failure in the middle

Creating the strategy

Getting all of the small details right

Coming up with innovative ideas

Making them work in practice

Piloting interventions

Scaling up interventions

Developing budgets

Executing spending efficiently

Delivering training workshops

Changing practice on the ground

Designing and building data systems

Ensuring data is current and reliable

Aligning with other donors

Aligning with political leaders

Focus must be on the hard bits to achieve transformation reform

The problem with much technical assistance is that it focuses on the easy bits. In a series of large projects we reviewed, funded by a range of different donors, all of the support was focused on the easy bits. Yet on their own, the easy bits do not help change people’s lives. Budgets, reports, recommendations and strategies only make a difference when somebody does the far harder task of implementing what they describe.

The real work of reform, the changes that make a real difference to people’s lives, comes from doing the hard bits. The hard bits are difficult, complicated, unpredictable. And they are the only way to make a difference to people’s lives.


Focusing on the hard bits will require more than just changing the scope of assistance.

It will require a greater tolerance of risk and failure (because if you work on the hard bits, you are going to fail, often). It will require;

  • Completely different ways of managing providers (because the hard bits are unpredictable, and do not fit neatly onto a work plan).

  • Different types of people and provider (because the skills required to do the hard bits are very different from the ones required to do the easy bits).

  • A much deeper commitment to helping governments solve the really difficult challenges they face.

About the author

 Fenton Whelan founded Acasus, he has more than a decade of experience in public health and education development.

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