Dealing with complexity – is the SDC credit proposal really the key document?

April 20, 2011 | Manuel Flury | SDC Experiences |


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Manuel picture for sdclanBy Manuel Flury

Some months ago, a colleague of mine was preparing a regional workshop with National Programme Officers (NPO).  “How can we make sure that NPOs write better credit proposals that reflect the various, complex challenges SDC is confronted with  in its development activities?” was the question we discussed. My immediate reaction and proposal was: Why don’t we make the NPOs understand better how SDC Berne looks at proposals and how Berne takes decisions. During the workshop, the NPOs got acquainted with SDC Berne realities through role plays.
Some weeks later I participated in a discussion among colleagues leaving for Cooperation Offices. Again the same issue: Credit proposals do not satisfy the Head Office, they do not reflect the logics of the Operations’ Committee. Are NPOs not able to edit such documents? Can’t they handle the complexity built-in? The answer was a different one: Let the NPOs focus on projec documents. That is where they are experts in! And let the Swiss expatriate staff write the “Swiss styled” credit proposals. Dividing the labour as another way of dealing with complexity!

The challenges

National Programme Officers (NPO) in Ouagadougou, Bishkek and La Paz are all confronted with a same challenge: to formulate the credit proposal, the basic document based on which the SDC management approves credits. This document translates project documents (“ProDocs”) written by partners into a language SDC Berne is familiar with.

Programme Officers and Heads of Regional Divisions at Head Office are all confronted with a same challenge: to rectify the proposals edited by the Field Offices and to align them to SDC’s mission, strategy and performance agreement as approved by the Swiss parliament. 

The Senior Management of SDC is confronted with a major challenge: to make sure that SDC’s development policies and strategies do match with Swiss foreign policy principles.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, within wich SDC is housed is confronted with an important challenge: to create coherence between Swiss domestic and foreign policies. For Swiss development policy, the “well-understood” (german “wohlverstandene”) self-interest becomes a key principle: both participating in shaping global policies and making them pro poor on one side and valorising Swiss expertise on the other.

The Federal Administration is confronted with the one challenge: to show taxpayers how their money spent in cooperation improves the life of poor farmers, improves the health of mothers and children, increases the number of skilled young people.

Turning back to the NPOs sitting in SDC Field Offices in Ulan Bator, Cotonou, Port of Prince or Sarajevo: Whereas ProDocs talk about country objectives, the SDC credit proposals need to answer as well to Swiss and global challenges. The complexity is maximal.


Handling complexity – I

In an earlier post on dealing with complexity in times of organisational change we stated: “Humans, acting collectively, can make systems that might otherwise be complex into known systems.”  The aim must be to allow NPOs and all other parties involved to delop the overwhelming complexity built in the credit proposals into something conceivable and tangible. May be we find NPOs with particular intellectual and editorial abilities to reflect both the local and the Swiss context in a language understandable for all parties. 


The credit proposals (and NPOs) under scrutiny

The story goes on: Programme Officers at Head Office edit the credit proposals and send them back to Field Offices, nicely coloured with their “track changes”; the chairpersons of the Operations’ Committee criticise credit proposals for not reflecting strategic priorities of SDC and Swiss Foreign Policy; both Heads of Regional Divisions and of Fields Offices turn into text editors and NPOs get frustrated because they do not feel able to formulate credit proposals according to SDC standards. Programme Management Specialists from the Head Office are sent to Field Offices to provide training to NPOs. SDC deployes permanent expatriate Quality Assurance Staff to Field Offices in order to finally improve the quality of credit proposals. And we may well expect: NPOs have to follow intense workshops on complexity writing and editing coaching will be offered to them.


Handling complexity – II

Two sorts of questions are gradually arising:
(1) Is it up to the NPOs to understand Swiss logics? NPOs know their country context, they are not necessarily conversant with the Swiss (policy) context. Why shouldn’t the Swiss expatriates edit credit proposal since they know the Swiss context? and
(2) What is the most important document for any meaningful cooperation activity?

Making the complex system known implies:
(1) Let us distinguish between ProDocs and credit proposals and have the NPO – our local experts – focus on these documents that are  finally the binding documents for any agreement SDC concludes with its partners “on the ground”; and
(2) Let the Swiss expatriate staff – our experts for the Swiss context – deal with the credit proposals


The lesson to be learnt

Let us not “overcomplexify” our task, let people do their job according to their expertise and let them find their way into a known system.

In the earlier post mentioned I referred to the way we find our way in the complexities of traffic. Imagine arriving into your town without knowing how you cross a busy street. Traffic lights are just one option and not always the best one as we know from our own experience of crossing during red light periods.


Comments to“Dealing with complexity – is the SDC credit proposal really the key document?”

  1. Babette says:

    Dear Manuel

    your thoughts are refreshing and hit the mark… it is indeed a question of intercultural translation we are talking about!
    The question of how to divide the task of bridging the gap between the “real world of our programmes” and the “real world of internal and external fundraising / accountability” has lead to head-scratching in SRC as well. What you suggest is a wonderful way of appreciating the strengths of everyone involved and reducing potential frustration!

    Thanks and have a good week


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