Humanitarian aid project is a term which might have a very specific meaning in some contexts, and sound very nebulous in others. In this context, I am using the term humanitarian aid project to refer to large-scale, often worldwide efforts to improve the plight of humanity. They could be government run projects, such as hurricane relief efforts by FEMA. Or, they might be run by NGOs or charities in all parts of the world. Large organizations running humanitarian aid efforts include the World Food Programme, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the Borgen Project — to name just a few.
In this blog, I explain the extra challenges associated with humanitarian aid projects and outline several ways that blockchain and the Smart Projex methodology might help. Many of the points discussed in this blog can be applied to a variety of large projects.
It’s not so much that there is anything specific that makes humanitarian aid projects different from others. It’s that they share characteristics with other kinds of projects, that some people think are very different from each other.
While there is some crossover in similarities across different types of projects, I’ve found five particular and distinctive kinds of projects that each contain their own unique characteristics. Humanitarian aid projects actually share all of these unique characteristics — making them particularly challenging, and ripe for a blockchain solution.
People who manage legal matters (projects) sometimes note that there is an extra burden in these projects. The other side is spending its time trying to sabotage your efforts. Humanitarian aid projects can share that trait. Maybe there’s a war being waged in the country you’re trying to provide aid. Or, inadequate infrastructure, resources, or educational systems can work against your project efforts.
Humanitarian aid projects may involve a substantial number of volunteers. Volunteers come into projects with a different mindset, and different requirements. Many of them have other jobs and are doing this work because they are passionate about the cause. They may not respond to emails with the same regularity that they would if they were in your office, working down the hall from you. They aren’t getting paid for the work, and so, for the project manager, there is little ability to force anything into completion. It’s about your ability to be persuasive.
You may have volunteers who are technologically challenged. This dictates that any blockchain solution, targeted at humanitarian aid projects, must have an extremely simple interface. It likely needs to be mobile, or at least some piece of it needs to work on a phone. People will be coming in and out and will not likely be trained on your software. This is unlike business projects, where the company decrees that its teams will use a specific type of software, and thus, the motivation to learn it is greater.
Circumstances change rapidly in the technology world. Project requirements are often unknown and evolve in response to project efforts. Planning the project out, months in advance, is often a waste of time. So, an Agile approach is needed.
There is often the need to have supplies (or people) delivered to a particular place, at a particular time. Orders need to be placed. Dates need to be finalized. Permits may be needed. And yet, in an Agile world, how can we do this?
Just as there might be outsourced work in a construction project, with numerous subs, all with different needs and requirements, a humanitarian aid project can often be a collaboration with multiple organizations, even other governments.
They may not all use the same technologies. There may be multiple project managers who are sharing the work.
There are hearts and minds that need to be changed. You won’t be able to simply decree that something is changing. You will need to build coalitions and test ideas. You will need persuasiveness. And so, the project management piece requires a different touch, much like projects which have been undertaken to drive a major organizational change.
I have written several blogs on how Smart Projex can build trust in disparate groups of stakeholders. As I said in one, different users need different pieces of data. Part of the challenge is determining the level of transparency that is needed across the project. In humanitarian aid projects, there is the added complication that there could be a war going on. Building trust in war-torn companies is tough.
Understanding who is entitled to which pieces of data is more complicated than it appears on first blush. Complete transparency is an option in some cases, but if you are working in multiple countries which are at war, is that really an option?
The data that volunteers need is simply different from the data that executives need. So, it may be as much about the user interface as complicated questions about transparency. Nevertheless, striking a balance between privacy and transparency is essential. This is just as true for the victims who are being helped, many of whom are in no position to advocate for themselves, or use much of the technology that is needed by those currently participating in the Bitcoin or altcoin worlds.
Some project management experts believe that blockchain is the ultimate trust building tool. The reason is that it offers a framework that provides validations of previous transactions, which creates immutable evidence of what has happened. With some limitations, a wide network of people associated with a project can easily identify what has actually occurred, and what remains. No longer will we need to rely on estimates of the amount of work remaining.
Some experts believe that blockchain could revolutionize the supply chain world. With smart contracts, product moves can be initiated electronically when the terms of the contract have been met. It’s transparent, secure, and traceable. The chain of transactions is permanent.
Humanitarian aid projects often involve the transporting of large quantities of supplies. Multiple entities can be involved. The blockchain would tell us exactly what has been done, and what hasn’t been done.
As I have suggested in another blog on how blockchain could improve project success, for now, we should be including human audits of all completed smart contracts before payments are made. Unlike the crypto currency world, this is not just about transferring monies. There are often services performed by humans that likely need to be done before the payment under the smart contract is made.
The need for close oversight of costs varies from project to project. Some organizations and/or clients care more than others about keeping costs under control. Some projects have clearer requirements from the outset, and thus, a project budget is easier to estimate. And humanitarian aid projects, like many other non-profit projects, often rely on charitable donations. And so, there is a need for some accountability to donors.
Depending on the organization, there may also be a strong need to manage project income, which is often not considered an important part of project management.
In most cases though, there is a need to ensure that the project costs (and revenues, perhaps) were managed in accordance with management and/or client expectations. So, for example, the $500,000 payment for tetanus vaccines needed in Nigeria must be sent at the right time to the right people, after the appropriate foundational work has been done. And, the project management piece may include making sure that revenues are received and properly credited. Project schedules rarely overlap with fiscal years, and when multiple organizations, currencies, languages, and cultures are involved, it gets increasingly complicated.
And so, the blockchain framework can offer a balance between transparency and privacy, along with accountability and security. This is critical for the project financial accounting.
If the intersection of blockchain and project management interests you, I’d love to chat. I’m at a crossroads with Smart Projex and assessing my next steps. What about you? Connect with me on LinkedIn here or schedule a call. Maybe I’ll feature you in an upcoming blog or a whitepaper about how to make this happen.