Helping the New Zealand Aid Programme’s staff design and manage successful agriculture projects

New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) manages the New Zealand Aid Programme. This programme provides New Zealand’s aid to the Pacific, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and supports develop in areas like health, education, infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries and the environment.

The beauty of this document is that it succinctly summarises what we have learnt from a range of agricultural activities, so that our experience can be built on and our knowledge shared in an accessible way.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

MFAT had useful information about its agriculture work, but it was in 56 different reports

Between 2014 and 2018 the New Zealand Aid Programme financed around 50 agriculture projects. MFAT’s project managers had submitted regular reports on the projects, and some of the projects had also been evaluated. As a result, MFAT’s Insights, Monitoring and Evaluation team had gathered almost 2000 pages of information about the agriculture projects.

MFAT wanted its staff to have easy access to lessons from agriculture projects that they can apply in their work

The team knew they had access to valuable information. Individually, the reports describe why a specific project is going well and why it is having problems. Collectively, this knowledge could help MFAT understand what factors are critical for projects to succeed and make a difference to people’s lives. The team wanted to create one document containing all the ‘insights’ these reports offer about MFAT’s work in agriculture. They asked me to read the reports, identify themes and lessons, and present them in a way that MFAT staff can learn from, and apply in their work.

Avocado nursery in Viet Nam. Source: Plant and Food Research

Agriculture activity insights is 30 pages and covers 20 factors that are critical for projects to succeed

I carried out this assignment in several stages. Each stage gave us the opportunity to check that the draft product was on track to meet MFAT’s objectives.

First, I developed interview questions and ran some group discussions with MFAT project managers and team leaders. This helped me understand what different groups of staff wanted to know. Next, using what I learnt in the interviews, I outlined what the insights document could cover. To test the outline, I reviewed a sample of the reports and presented my analysis to the team using the proposed outline. Finally, after discussing how we could improve the outline, I reviewed all the reports and drew out the common lessons or insights.

From 2000 pages of reporting, I distilled 20 factors that project managers say are critical for projects to succeed. I documented these in Agriculture activity insights, which is a 30-page report. The insights fall into four themes: project design, project partners, project environment and project management.

I presented the insights in ways that project managers, specialist assessors and decisionmakers can use when they are designing, assessing, approving or implementing an agriculture project. Referring to these insights will help MFAT staff consider whether a new project has the right factors in place to succeed; it will also help staff identify risks and problems to avoid.

Agriculture activity insights cover page. Source: New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

The new product is helping MFAT and its partners learn about what makes a successful agriculture project

MFAT says: ‘The beauty of this document is that it succinctly summarises what we have learnt from a range of agricultural activities, so that our experience can be built on and our knowledge shared in an accessible way.’

MFAT has used Agriculture activity insights to share what it has learnt with its managers, staff, and some NGO partners. It intends to increasingly share these lessons with commercial suppliers who are involved in, or seeking funding for, agriculture projects. It has become part of the key reading for new staff working in the agriculture sector, and is being considered as something to include in the Pacific and Development Group’s induction programme.