Monday, December 19, 2005

The 26 million beneficiaries

How do you evaluate the effectiveness and success of a development project? I asked someone who was responsible for oversight of projects similar to our own. It didn'’t take long for him to respond. "Cost-per-beneficiary,"” he answered. I forget what he said was a good rate as we were casually chatting in the compound's bar. I think that he said that in Iraq there was a range between $28 and $55 per beneficiary. This means that a project which has 1,000 beneficiaries will cost between $28,000 and $55,000.

The costs don't seem atypical for Iraq, though it surprises me that the cost per beneficiary figures would be prized. There are definitions for how to define a beneficiary, but organizations often inflate these numbers. Rarely have the number of beneficiaries actually been counted individually. No one is in a position to carefully verify the numbers provided. Most of the figures are, at best, estimates. A project with multiple activities can count the number of beneficiaries from each activity, which means that some individuals will appear in the total count multiple times. I heard that some organizations have counted more beneficiaries than the total population of Iraq!

Evaluating the cost-per-beneficiary also does not take into account the level of benefit. For example, one activity will reopen a school with improved facilities and halve the class size of the students. Another activity will cement an already operable, but unpaved road. The costs might be comparable. In most cases, everyone who regularly uses the road will be considered a beneficiary, which could be in the thousands. Repairing a school will provide much a much greater benefit for the students than the road will provide for the residents. The school may fit better with the long-term development objectives for the country. However, a straight '“cost-per-beneficiary' figure does not take this into account and would likely favor the road.


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