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Part 2: Project and macroeconomic coherence for Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals

Hector McNeill
George Boole Foundation
Hector McNeill

Contributing to the sustainability of our ecosystem is the priority global mission for all...
In the first article in this series I reviewed the mismatch between conventional macroeconomic theories and policies and the objectives laid out under Agenda 2030. There is a major issue in the lack of coherence between project objectives and the operational macroeconomic frameworks. Agenda 2030 bases the assessment of levels of achievement of Sustainable Development Goals on national or macroeconomic level SDG indicators. Changes to address deficits or gaps, however, take place at the microeconomic or project level. It is self-evident that overall coordination is required to ensure projects address the national level issues and do so successfully.

In this second part of this series on "Economic Policies for Agenda 2030" I set out the project level issues and how we are advancing the IT support to increase the capabilities of project teams to design effective projects and to liaise more effectively with policy makers. I only touch on outlines of the approach because by the end of this month or the beginning of September, 2020, will launch the full implementation of this cloud-based system. On that occasion, will release a considerable number of white papers and information on the system.

In the third part of this series, I will set out the macroeconomic theory and policy instruments available through RIO-Real Incomes Objective economic development programme that can help lever the ability of well-designed projects to attain their objectives. This will include proposals on legal and regulatory framework changes that can support required change.

The conventional approach to the establishment of development programmes and specific areas where projects need to be funded, usually follow a review and analysis of the economic sector activities, livelihoods social profiles of countries. These are quite often produced by international development banks as economic and sector analyses. These normally establish priorities for needed actions. Very much based on aggregate sector incomes, trade balances and growth targets the reports do not usually contain sufficient granularity upon which to base project priorities. One reason is that a gap in provisions such as clean water or basic foods does not necessarily mean that there is a need to expand the current activities that produce clean water or basic foods. By defining gaps as processes this presumes we already know what the "solution" is. This is quite often an error made at project identification level as well as in national sector reports.

To avoid falling into this trap and simply accepting what sector reports state it is always more productive to limit gap analysis to lack of existence or availability of essential provisions, including low incomes or health status, this can be followed up by constraints analysis to pinpoint why there are a gaps. This provides a basis for completing analyses to identify the best solutions to closing the gaps to satisfy the need. Year on year, with the advance in-state-of-the-art technologies, genetic potential of plants and animals, information and knowledge it is possible to identify improved methods, based on evidence, to advance the effectiveness and efficiency of processes adopted by projects. Ways to mitigate or avoid constraints by substituting traditional methods by alternatives help to increase project resilience and reduce risks.

Quite often, project level analysis, and working closely with stakeholders, can reveal details that have not been identified in the sector reports. However, policy analysts and politicians need to be informed about these details. As we progress through this article the sharing of knowledge between project identification activities and policy makers will become more apparent as an essential activity. This represents a gap in current procedures.

Essential liaisons

The natural hierarchy in government administrations, the division of administrations into ministries and specialized agencies linked to ministries, designed to cover sector requirements, operate according to priorities, actions, schedules and consultations that accommodate the administrations' availability of personnel and time. However, ad hoc feedback from the operational or microeconomic level as to why priorities or plans are not appropriate faces considerable difficulty in delivering such messages. The essential feedback loop is often so attenuated as to be virtually useless. The additional factor is that administrations are so accustomed to "controlling" the agenda that feedback is quite often ignored or placed on the shelf to be considered when the next sector review is carried out some years into the future.

Proactive and continuous feedback helps to fill in gaps in knowledge and accelerates innovation...
Where the prioritization of effort has become part of a government policy there is the issue of the commitment and status of the individuals who drew up the policy resulting in the real risk that feedback is regarded as "criticism" or "unhelpful", and therefore, likely to be ignored.

A critical characteristic of intelligent behaviour is an ability to improve activities and decisions in response to feedback. In policy framework terms this means moving to approaches that are less prescriptive in terms of laws, regulations and criteria in the sense of risking excluding better potential options. For example, in constitutional terms, the jury has the role of nullifying laws where the jury considers the law to not apply to the given circumstances under consideration. This ability of a jury being able to apply their community conscience, common sense, to decide on guilt or innocence of an accused, has given rise to some of the most important human rights advances to the benefit of peoples. Under Agenda 2030 we address a major challenge of ensuring that strategies do not prevent us from adopting the most effective means to close gaps, some of which have existential implications. Covid-19 has highlighted the urgency for a proactive "jury" system based on an effective liaison between project level activities and policy makers.


Project managers, in contemplating such liaison, and policy makers doing the same, is likely to result expressions of doubt as to the practicality and utility of such liaison because each wishes to preserve their autonomy and both might claim the current system is "good enough".

Admit defeat and move on

So far, the Agenda 2030 policy portfolio has exposed the fact that many of the current projects and the economic policy framework are not good enough. Macroeconomic policies are causing income disparity, undermining sustainable consumption and production and not advancing climate action; these critical goals are all moving backwards. Policies are failing. Instead of muddling through it is important admit defeat. On closer examination it is evident that inappropriate procedures and analytical methods are being applied both in terms of policy formulation as well as in the design and implementation of projects.


Agenda 2030 has essentially placed into the mainstream what were previously considered to be cross-cutting issues. Before Agenda 2030, in a large number of projects with well-defined objectives, the cross-cutting issues were added, often on a half-hearted basis, to satisfy donor eligibility criteria. However it was the case that conventional project cycle management guidelines did not provide an effective guidance for their inclusion. As can be appreciated, by making what were cross-cutting issues the main project themes and extending them, Agenda 2030 has complicated the required analyses and made many project cycle management systems almost redundant. Most project cycle management systems are essentially containers into which information on a project structure, activities and resources are input to create a fixed time line linked to a Logical Framework Analysis. As a result this is a management tool on managing a single plan. However, usually, there is no information to explain on what basis the plan was selected, what options were examined and why the project plan represents the best and optimized solution. Dependencies, risk and sensitivity analysis is often lacking and post-funding sustainability assessments are usually weak. This is because conventional project cycle management system tend to be plan execution maps but they do not possess resources to guide teams in the process of designing feasible and optimized projects.

A solution

Much of the resistance to more effective liaison between projects and policy makers, is a legacy of completely out of date forms of communication, recording of decisions and the paper-based system. This system was, in reality, difficult to manage, inconvenient and inefficient. A 2010 report by the World Bank Evaluation Group confirmed cases of original project plans and performance assessments being no longer available at the time of evaluations. The atomization caused by multi organizational or departmental inputs to projects reduced coherence of content. When key individuals left projects a significant part of the project memory was lost because of lack of established procedures related to recording of decisions. Another revelation was that the percentage of projects being approved without having economic rate of return (ERR) assessments increased from 20% to 80% between 1960s to 2010.

Starting in 2010 OQSI has developed procedures to address these issues based on a foundation report in 2011 1 and subsequent reviews into how the operational environments have changed and a critical review of project evaluation standards. SEEL was established in 1983 and has over 35 years experience in information technology, global communications and decision analysis applications, largely in renewable natural resources and agriculture, and has contributed to the identification of systems to facilitate more effective coordination between project teams and policy makers. The emphasis is on system properties such as ease of use, utility of functions, an exceptionally high speed of response and low cost.

The main approach is to bring about actionable, practical solutions in a proposed solutions package made up of two parts:
  • A project design, implementation and portfolio management system
  • A tool box of macroeconomic instruments to facilitate an adequate response to project level needs
Project design, implementation and portfolio management

Taking into account the most important Agenda 2030 project portfolio failures in the shape of income disparity, sustainable production and consumption and lack of climate action, any new project design system needs to be able to tackle these gaps in a proactive and positive fashion. This system also needs to be accessible on a global basis at a low cost. However, before covering how these are addressed, it is important to understand the logical sequence of the proposed analytical solutions. The proposed solution consists of three groups of analytical procedures made up of collections of analytical tools:
  • GCA-Global Constraints Analysis - analyses of the national level constraints related to land, population structure and dynamics, inflation, nominal incomes and interest rates

  • 3DP-Due Diligence Design Procedures - a stepwise series of analytical procedures to ensure that all critical factors are taken into account and given due consideration

  • RTME-Real Time Monitoring & Evaluation - the "project memory" containing all preparatory data from GCA and 3DP and holding the change strategies as various Logical Project Options (LPO) from which one is held as the project plan. Oversight provided by on-demand real time analysis and reporting on any aspect of the project design and implementation. RTME can hold any number of projects in a portfolio.
The prototypes of this system have all worked well on the basis of browser-only access leading to a low cost and easily accessible system from any device or operating system with a standard browser.

GCA-Global Constraints Analysis

The GCA, with over 25 analytical tools, helps project designers take macrodimensioned national indicators and run analyses that determine the distribution of gaps and needs within the population to pinpoint the communities facing the most significant gaps and needs. This helps establish a transparent linkage between project level actions, to be defined, and the dimensions of the needed results of a project, or projects, in order to contribute effectively to national targets for the Sustainable Development Goal/s being addressed.
Scope & content of 3DP

Significant additions to project design logic are criteria and administrative issues. Criteria established by potential investors and donors do not always comply with emerging national priorities. This can be the result on lack of knowledge or misinterpretation of the significance of stated objectives. However, the focus of each type of criterion is undertaken to check the specific implications of criteria on project efficiency, impact and relevance. Lack of criteria analysis can result in projects being refused support. 3DP has now added the OBA (Options Benefit Analyses) that relate to income disparity, sustainable production, climate impacts and financial returns.

Administrative norms include law and regulations, procurement, financial transfer procedures and accountancy. These establish the constraints imposed on projects and which need to be accounted for during the design phase because they impact implementation phases. In the case of some project activity process technologies existing regulation can limit or render them redundant. Projects can fail because of a lack of attention to the sometimes significant delays associated with normal procurement procedures. The details of ministry fund transfer procedures to projects linked to accounting years as opposed to agricultural years can result in significant disruptions. These types of predictable events can cause very significant delays in project implementation. In some cases the delays result in cancellation of further funding, not because the basic project design is at fault but because regulations and administrative procedures lack the necessary flexibility and therefore are not conducive to an effective implementation.
This analysis, of relevance to policy makers, can help determine the required dimensions of actions to generate desired impacts. At this point there emerge several analytical and review issues which project teams can share with policy makers. This information can help determine if there is a need for a single project or a programme of several projects each serving localized community needs where gaps and more pronounced.

3DP-Due Diligence Design Procedures

The 3DP contains some 50 stepwise analyses covering:
  • Population, cultural education and health status - 7 analytical tools
  • Economy, livelihoods, markets and logistics - 9 analytical tools
  • Environment, ecosystems, carrying capacity & sustainability - 15 analytical tools
  • Recorded selection criteria - 8 analytical tools
  • Constitutional & administrative constraints - 6 analytical tools
  • Cross-relationships - 1
In order to assist this process, OQSI had to alter some evaluation criteria by extending the OECD DAC Criteria in two ways: The criterion "cohesion" was substituted by "coherence" and OQSI added "resilience". Also OQSI are developing application procedures for criteria according to the phase of a project, something OECD has not done. OQSI have identified four specific forms of evaluation where the nature of what is being evaluated are distinct according to the project phase:
  • Project design (LPO) potential performance based on evidence
  • Measured implementation activity performance
  • Measured performance of implementation decision in response to changes
  • Post-funding adjusted design for sustainability
Because of the nature of the conventional project cycle management methods, and failure to address the evaluation target issues, this level of detail is often lacking and therefore is not available to external evaluators.

Focus on current Agenda 2030 portfolio deficits

OQSI have introduced a new series of analytical procedures referred to as Options Benefit Analysis to replace a previous proposed group, Cost Benefit Analyses. In essence this is just a name change but the tools have been improved. OBA consists of four calculations:
  • OBA1 - Cost Benefit Analysis (Based on standard financial analyses such as World Bank procedures set out in J. Price Gittinger's publications3)

  • OBA2 - Cost Income Analysis (Based on RIO-Real Income Objective investment project recommendations)

  • OBA3 - Cost Carbon Analysis (Based on established carbon footprint estimation procedures)

  • OBA4 - Cost Capacity Analysis (Based on carrying capacity impact estimates)
Main project performance trajectory phases

In terms of performance trajectories projects are divided into two basis phases.

Implementation setup

Implementation setup covers procurement, tender calls, contracting of supplies, reception of equipment, testing and commissioning ready for operations. Although commissioning phases might demonstrate a level of performance, in terms of project performance evaluation, this can only be estimated during the operations phase. The careful organization and management of the implementation and setup phase is important to avoid delays in the operations or production phases.


This phase involves the operation of all activities in managing the proposed output of the project. During this period production comes up to full capacity as a combination of improved efficiency and operator competence.

Each of these analytical tools are based on a practical trajectory for gains in performance of the operational productivity in terms of financial return, income levels, carbon footprints and carrying capacity during project during the operational phases. The longer the implementation setup phase the longer it takes to gain required level of performance in each case (see box on the left).

In the case of cost benefit analysis the projected trajectory of performance is based on the input and output (I/O) cash flows which are discounted to generate a present value comparison. In the case of projecting actual income levels, carbon footprints and carrying capacity there is a dependency on the learning curve and need to allow for the improvement in operator competence over time. Usually experienced practitioners have a good feel for the rates at which capabilities develop. However with the scale of the Agenda 2030 challenge, the reality is that there are not enough experienced specialists available to do this work. Therefore OQSI have adapted a well-established learning curve estimator2 that can project the gains in competence to an acceptable degree of precision. This is combined with adequate guidelines that help project designers determine performance trajectories across all four critical criteria.

Logical Project Option (LPO) the best current feasible solution
OQSI Critical Path

The Logical Project Option is an optimized basic feasible solution that can be defined as a result of GCA and 3DP procedures and it represents the best trade-off position between all performance and sustainability criteria. The trading-off complex can be observed in the diagram on the right entitled OQSI Critical Path. The best LPO trade-off position is an equilibrium between the central column sustainabilty criteria and a satisfaction of the performance criteria in the left hand column. There is also a standard Critical Path which seeks to minimize the implementation setup period in order to maximize the rate at which cost benefits return (OBA1 through OBA4). This is to maximize economic growth while also maximizing the rates of return to the environment (RRE) in the form of climate action and carrying capacity impacts as well as economic rates of return (ERR).

The reason an given LPO is qualified by the words, "best current feasible solution" is that as better knowledge becomes available on cause and effect relationships, new proven technologies or changes in external and internal circumstances the best LPO will in reality have a different input-output (I/O) structure. Indeed, the methods of simulating different potential LPOs is achieved by adjusting all factor according to changes in input/output which alter economic, financial, income, climatic and carrying capacity impacts.

RTME-Real Time Monitoring & Evaluation

The RTME provides access to the project memory which remains as a permanent immutable record. GCA and 3DP procedures ensure that all design decisions and analyses remain on record for any number of projects. In this way all knowledge relating to a project, the project memory, accumulates as a central coherent body of knowledge. This ensures that all relevant information remains accessible throughout the project life cycle and any loss of personnel has no impact on the project memory and therefore only marginal impacts, if any, on the performance. The RTME also contains the final Logical Project Options selected as the best current basic feasible solution. This LPO can be displayed in the conventional Log Frame format but the details on any section can be accessed by the click of a menu item. The RTME has in excess of 30 analytical tools. Project activities, inputs, outputs, human resources and proposed budgets establish the performance benchmarks for subsequent performance evaluation.

Real time oversight

The RTME provides effective real time oversight of ongoing activities through an on-demand analysis and reporting system for use by any authorized personnel, including stakeholders.

Monitoring and evaluation

This system also contains an internal monitoring and evaluation system as well as an external monitoring and evaluation system.

The internal evaluation is carried out by designated team members and is designed to promote their learning cycles by involving them directly in design and a comparison of design assumptions and results. The overall approach is that the whole system has a fundamental role as a learning system that contributes to the application of best practice in project design and, to this degree, teams find the system particularly rewarding. There is a human resources deficit in qualified personnel to carry out the necessary project designs to address Agenda 2030 on a global basis and therefore during the extended period of development and testing of OQSI recommendations, SEEL has developed cognitive ergonomic techniques to maximize the transfer of know how. Cognitive ergonomics is the study of thinking or conscious mental processes connected to professional tasks such as analytical procedures in order to increase communications and effectiveness of task execution. The overall philosophy of the whole system is that of decision analysis where errors are detected through a regular diagnosis to identify inadequate data available or errors in models connected to knowledge deficits on cause and effect relationships. Therefore the process is a positive one of discovery with an emphasis on advancing the quality knowledge shared by the team. Therefore, the monitoring and evaluations carried out by team members, on completion of each task or assessing outcome of implementation decisions, provides valuable insights for the team. As a result, external evaluators deal with more enthusiastic and well-informed team members as well as having access to all project memory resources, including the results of the internal monitoring and evaluation reports upon which to base the analysis for the external evaluations.

Cognitive ergonomics

Because project design involves a multi-strand multi-disciplinary analyses and it is difficult to form teams covering all aspects, therefore each analytical tool has a plain language guide to orientate users. There is an emphasis on limited inputs and elaborate algorithms to generate required information in tabular, graphic and narrative form. In the GCA summary narrative reports on more complex analyses are generated by the system to prevent errors in interpretation.

In the 3DP series a negative logic is applied and detailed guidelines are provided. Negative logic is used to identify the potential constraints imposed by each factor on a project's effectiveness. This helps orientate users to undertake a more critical and focused analysis. This also reduces the likelihood of users defaulting to a tick box approach. Each 3DP tool identifies the professional domain, for example pedology, ecology or genetics, in case team members wish to cross check their entries with experts. A global resources section provides access to regularly updated online references on each topic.

With over 100 analytical tools this might be considered to be overwhelming or over kill but once evaluators have been exposed to the system they have found it to be relatively easy and progress through the design steps are particularly transparent and relatively rapid. Reports have a clear focus and sequential characteristic. The system is an ideal training environment for institutional staff who use the system. Training can be managed by simply registering dummy projects on the system.


Although some ground has been covered in this article I have jumped over a large number of issues to get the basic message across. This is that conventional project cycle management systems are not adequate for the challenges of Agenda 2030 because of a lack of emphasis on the process of project design and lack of analytical tools to carry out the necessary procedures. The introduction of a discipline of a due diligence design procedure helps avoid gaps and oversights so as to arrive at a best logical project option or plan. The implementation phases are served by a multiproject portfolio oversight enabling government sponsored multi-project programmes to be adequately monitored in real time. As a result of the GCA national level analysis and the facilities provided, enable government agencies to manage large scale programmes. This approach provides an operational network that greatly assists the convenience of productive communication between project teams and policy makers to their mutual benefit and to move us towards a solution to the Agenda 2030 portfolio performance deficits.

1 McNeill, H. W. & Belko, F., "Towards more effective Project Management", GBF, London, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-907833-02-4

2  McNeill, H. W., "Seel-Telesis - A decision support program", SEEL, 1990.

3 Gittinger, J. Price., "Compounding and Discounting Tables for Project Analysis - with a Guide to Their Applications", EDI Series in Economic Development, EDI, World Bank, 1984 and
   Gittinger, J. Price., "Economic Analyis of Agricultural Projects", EDI Series in Economic Development, EDI, World Bank, 1996.

Posted: 20200802
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