7 Questions for Concepts and Designs: Aid and Development (Part 1)

By Tamara Haig
5 min. read











Students from Kiriwaneliya Singla School Sri Lanka use recycled material to count – here, seven tokens (or seven questions?). From an AusAID/World Vision partnership (2011). Image: DFAT Flickr CC 


There is a concerted push to start or complete concepts and/or designs by end 1st Quarter 2019. This is understandable – there is an expected caretaker period which will put DFAT and the Australian Government on hold pre the likely Federal Election (latest May 2019). With my DevDAS colleagues who also undertake in-country consultations, we find that keeping focused on 7 key design questions helps to both frame and guide our discussions ensuring we’re on the same page, as well as retaining the rigour and integrity of process and outputs (Investment Concept/Design Documents) while deadlines loom.

From our work on over 10 DFAT-funded designs, role on the DFAT Design Panel since 2007 and work in 12 countries in Indo-Pacific, here are the 7 key design questions. In brief, the ‘Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, How Much?’ – practice saying those in whichever order you prefer, and you’ll quickly find you have easily to hand the lines of questioning to explore or articulate your design:

1. Who? Critically, people are at the heart of development initiatives.

Centrally, we’d say the ‘who’ question is about the people you are most seeking to assist – it could be X,000 villagers, or young women business owners, or children attending early year schooling, or people living in disaster-prone areas. You know your own target audience, stakeholders or beneficiaries.

Remember in here, the key influencers and stakeholders who are critical to the initiative and/or advocating and advancing it within national government, business or community settings. And of course, the key clients and funders of the initiative, and the internal people/team and resourcing you’ll need.

Either way, articulating the ‘who’ or people element with use of both quantitative and qualitative metrics helps to clearly define the case for intervention. Focusing on people is a great start (and clearly, end).

In standard designs, it might not come at the start of a document necessarily (context and sectoral/problem analysis etc often leads in – the ‘why’ we’re doing this), but it unfolds all sorts of possibilities such as metrics, results and measurement questions to show how we’ll know the initiative is successful, or useful communication methods, behavioural impact reviews, or development of user personas and others.

2. What? ‘What’ we’re trying to achieve within X period isn’t always easy to define.

You might find a quick Theory of Change or feasibility review is a qood way to find out if your end goal is too ambitious, not ambitious enough (rarely the case), or has too many assumptions or unknowns that need to be explored or validated first, or inherent gaps (and needs a re-think).

Either way, the end outcomes (and the key activities you think you’ll need to get there and to intermediate outcomes along the way) are often the nuts and bolts of design methodologies and approaches.

Being able to describe what you’re doing is often within the context of DFAT / a donor’s policy documents, Foreign Policy White Paper, a Sector Investment or Country Plan and so on. There are often broader goals and bilateral commitments made and your initiative and design needs to have a clear line of sight to that and how it will contribute. The same applies in other contexts – it could be your partner in-country and their vision to which you are seeking to align.

There are many related areas to be explored in other design questions, they can’t be viewed within a silo – they’re certainly interdependent. Within an Investment Design, this might be covered for example in your description of the initiative and annexes with indicative activities, a Theory of Change and so on.

3. When? The timeframe for an initiative is a key planning instrument.

It may be in part informed by aspects such as when existing programs conclude, or when funds become available, or when there will be approval and sign-off by key stakeholders. It’s not unusual for the design work to be say, 6 months ahead of actual start date on typically a 3 year program or similar initiative (within a longer-term vision for a 3+3+2 year commitment).

‘When’ can relate as much to the immediate planning for the design process – from desk work, in-country consultations, report drafting feedback and finalising stages – as it can to how to best sequence the initiative itself.

For example, it could be that an approach might be best to pilot or trial in certain provinces or school settings or in communities, with lessons learned to then inform scale-up, replication in latter months/Year 2. It could be that key events, electoral, legislative, policy-related or other, are not only significant in terms of timing but can inform what aspects of the design would be best tackled when.

The questions around timing inform many other related aspects around personnel resourcing (and the provision of long term versus specialist or flexible short term assistance), around generation of key baselines and early monitoring and evaluation activities, budget and financing for the initiative and so on.

4. Where? Inherent within our design of initiatives is the sense of place.

Typically our work begins from a bilateral or regional, multilateral or other basis. It could be at a government level, organisational or partnership for example. Either way, we need to determine where we are seeking to have an impact. Perhaps this naturally falls out of say, a country program and on further discussions and review of work and successes and lessons to date, may be around certain locations or target provinces.

It could more broadly refer to working within agencies (central or line agencies in government), or working in the village, or perhaps with a head office in one location, and regional hub and country offices elsewhere (say if across the Pacific), while at the same time cognisant of both say DFAT Desk and Post responsibilities for the initiative.

Even the selection of countries on a regional program can be well informed by the other design questions, such as what impact we might be seeking under a broader sectoral, thematic or SDG parameters. Also questioning where the pre-conditions for a successful initiative lie, can be telling.

For example if ownership, agency and leadership are critical, we might select or trial – informed by stakeholder consultation – one location over another. If the appetite for risk or learning is greater, we can trial different locations (with instruments in place for results measurement and tracking) to inform the next stage. This can be mapped out and articulated within different locations in an Investment Design Document/ similar.

We’re almost there. To make sense of the above, you’ll need the next 3 Questions unpacked, too. For Part 2 – the Why? How? How Much? – please head over to this next blog. Just 5 more minutes to round it out.


A note from DevDAS: Do you need to develop a DFAT Investment Design Document? Or do you need to re-scope an existing initiative? Please get in touch.


Tamara Haig

Tamara Haig is CEO and Principal of DevDAS. She has 15 years experience across 12 countries in the Indo-Pacific region for clients including DFAT, WBG, private sector and NGOs. She has designed, worked on or managed 80+ aid initiatives and is on several donor panels (for design, gender and ICT). She speaks English and Melanesian Pidgin.

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