Context defines project performance in Africa
Like many other continents, Africa has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic recovery will be a challenge. Even before COVID-19, project failure rate was high in French-speaking Africa. Professor Lavagnon Ika has been awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant to study the role that context (economic, political, socio-cultural, institutional, and managerial) plays in project performance in French-speaking Africa. He will consider the perspective of various stakeholders to try to understand how context contributes to project success or failure.
Project title: Le rôle du contexte dans les projets en Afrique [The role context plays in projects in Africa]
We asked Professor Ika why he is personally interested in this research area. “Born and raised in Benin (West Africa), my exposure to gloom and doom in projects began at home: unfinished projects, time and cost overruns, 'white elephants', stakeholder disappointment, and beneficiaries left in dismay. Yet, under similar circumstances, other projects do succeed in Africa. Thus, I have always wondered what role context plays in both project performance and underperformance.”
The role of context in project success or failure
According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa is a prime region of the world for future economic and social development. Billions of dollars are invested in Africa on international development projects and other locally funded initiatives. These funds are earmarked for projects such as large-scale community improvement, resilient infrastructure, rural mobility, public sector reform, and access to renewable energy. However, it seems that funding the project isn’t always the challenge in Africa: rather, when money is available, it is not always being spent on the intended project.
As discussed in a McKinsey article entitled Solving Africa’s Infrastructure Paradox, which clearly presents project failure rates in Africa, the problem is not finding the investment, but rather “our research shows that most infrastructure projects in Africa fail to reach financial close: less than 10% of projects achieve this milestone, and 80% of projects fail at the feasibility and business-plan stage.” Professor Ika’s research has shown that more than 50% of projects of different types – infrastructure or capacity building – fail to meet benefit, stakeholder, or beneficiary expectations for different reasons, including failure to appreciate context. Read more about some of these reasons in Four Reasons Why Projects Fail in Africa.
Clearly, context can have a major impact on whether a project succeeds or fails. The influence of economic, political, legal, socio-cultural, institutional, managerial circumstances, along with many other layers of context, is undeniable, but their role in project performance is not clear. in a In a previous study, Professor Ika examined the circumstances that occur in advance or in the wake of the project, while his latest work will help understand the contextual challenges that lead to project success or failure in French-speaking African countries like Benin, Ivory Coast, and Senegal. He will interview various stakeholders from 12 major projects, including project supervisors, managers, technical experts, and funders, to gain an understanding of how, and to what extent, different contexts are involved in project performance, both in terms of project management and (economic and social) development, and whether these projects are funded nationally or internationally.
“It is time to go beyond the proverbial appreciation that “context matters” and examine different layers of context and how they combine over time to influence project performance and underperformance in Francophone Africa, where socio-political complexity tends to be very high,” adds Professor Ika.
Improving project management practices and sustainable development in Africa
This work will add knowledge to project management theory, shedding light on the role various contexts may play over time in project success or failure in French-speaking Africa. The knowledge gained can guide policymakers and practitioners, providing them with a better appreciation of the overall African context, its dynamic nature, and its influence on project performance. From a practical perspective, this knowledge can help all stakeholders improve project management practices and promote sustainable development success in Africa.
By Rania Nasrallah-Massaad
Lavagnon Ika is Full Professor of Project Management (PM), former Program Director for the MSc in Management, Faculty Leader for uOttawa partnerships with African Universities, and Founding Director of the Major Projects Observatory at the Telfer School of Management (uOttawa). Read more about his work.