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Frame project strategically from the start


Frame project strategically from the start

Frame project strategically from the start

Posted on September 30, 2019 by Karina de Souza

Authoring Organizations: Pacific Institute
Consulting Organizations: Anheuser-Busch InBev
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)
Universal: No
Applicable Phases: Commit
Last Updated May 22, 2024


Conceptualizing the project approach is very important at the start of the project scoping phase. This is particularly true when considering what implementation approach will best deliver the outcomes of the proposed project. Implementation choices largely depend on the approach and its associated assumptions (whether or not these assumptions are explicitly stated or understood). This lesson will discuss two common project approaches: the Basic Needs Based Approach (BNBA), which is used for short-term projects, and the Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA), which is often preferred for projects oriented toward inclusivity and sustainable outcomes.


A Basic Needs Based Approach (BNBA) and its variants are good for implementing short term projects, like improving the yield of a water well or constructing an irrigation channel, where output goals (especially tangible products) are the main focus. BNBA-related strategies, however, do not focus on the root causes of many water challenges. For example, this approach does not consider how beneficiaries might continue to maintain or finance water-related infrastructure, or how to motivate the community to respect source protection zones. The focus on tangible products like a new well pump or protecting a riparian zone, while valuable, often does not factor in the maintenance of these products, either financially or in terms of responsibility. BNBA-related strategies sometimes incorrectly assume that the willingness to maintain these products is implicit in the acceptance of these products in the first place.

By contrast, the Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) and its variants prioritize inclusive, empowering, and sustainable human behaviour outcomes. These approaches help motivate the local community to sustain project work even if the original donor has exited the partnership. The HRBA focus on aligning project products with capacity building or job creation provides those using the products with the motivation and ability to preserve them once the project has ended.


In practice, the HRBA approach is rarely implemented over the BNBA approach because partners lack the capacity or assume that HRBA strategies are difficult to implement and measure. Therefore funders should consider fully their approach when planning programs of work by:

  • considering the best project approach in tandem with long-term project objectives and outcomes
  • conducting surveys to understand central issues and the demand for action locally
  • If choosing an HRBA strategy, establishing capacity building for implementing partners


The original project at the Itawa Spring in Ndola, Zambia, used a Basic Needs Based Approach to frame the delivery of its project objective: to improve the water quality of the spring catchment zone. The project provided residents from informal settlements with official housing in another location to motivate them to locate away  from the spring protection zone, helping to protect the spring from contamination. However, once the housing was complete, the local community started to use the free land around the spring for other purposes, including solid waste disposal. It had not been adequately explained to them why the spring protection zone was needed and how it benefited them longer-term. Additionally, even if the community could appreciate the public health benefits of clean drinking water, they could not afford to maintain the project without external funding.

Project partners re-framed the project objectives using the Human Rights Based Approach and applied a new attitude to maintaining the project work. The project created recycling facilities in bars and shops in the town so that townspeople now sell their solid waste rather than dumping it. Further investment is being sought to turn the site around the spring into an ecopark with conference facilities. Income from the ecopark will go towards preserving the spring protection site. The ecopark will also benefit the community in terms of job creation, giving locals the incentive to preserve the spring from future contamination.

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This lesson learned reflects the beliefs and experiences of the author, not necessarily the Pacific Institute, CEO Water Mandate, or UN Global Compact.