Unpacking Humanitarian Project Cycle Management – An interview with Sandrine Delattre, Course Director.


A recent survey showed that most humanitarian professionals choose project management to describe their professional expertise. Why do you think that is?

It is absolutely logical to me given that NGO’s or International organizations are mostly working on a project-based structure. What we do in the field are by definition projects. Hence, humanitarian workers need to have expertise in project management whether they are in an operational or support department such as logistics, administration etc.

How is Humanitarian Project Management different to regular project management?

Fundamentally, there is no difference in terms of process. A project is a project. Whether you are in the humanitarian field or in the private sector for example you need to understand the problem, set objectives, identify the best possible solution, and then implement, monitor and evaluate.

This being said, a major difference lies within the ethical responsibility humanitarian workers must deal with. By definition, a project is something new. You are trying to find solutions that do not exist yet. So logically, one would say that failing is normal in project management: You may find out that there is no solution right now to a problem.

However, everyone can understand that project failures are far less acceptable in the humanitarian field as you are trying to respond to critical short or medium-term needs of people in crisis. In other words, they not only expect you – but need you – to deliver solutions. For this reason, it is even more important to ensure that you are doing everything right to enhance your chance of success.

Another more basic difference would be that the humanitarian sector uses quite specific project management tools. And of course, every humanitarian project manager must master those. I am thinking here of the obvious one: The Logical Framework which has been in existence for the past 40 years as a key tool to ensure communication between organizations and donors.

How does this course help to improve and extend project management skills?

I would say by targeting exactly what we just discussed. Very often, humanitarian professionals become project managers at a very fast rate. They do a great job in learning by doing. But as I recall for myself, at some point you feel stuck. You know that there must be better way to do things but you lack support in finding the what and the how.

So, this course is about strengthening what project managers already discovered, sometimes the hard way I must say, and building on it so that we can recreate, understand, and master the entire logic behind a project cycle.

To be metaphorical, I believe that project managers usually arrive on our course knowing each letter of the alphabet. And this course is about helping them reorganize the letters in a proper order and make sure that we all understand the use not only of each letter, but also of the entire alphabet itself.

Could you explain more what Results Based Management is? 

I would say that Results Based Management is an approach to ensure that you don’t only “do things” but that you effectively bring positive change. It is similar to the “theory of change” approach that we talk about today too.

Let me give you an example: An organization might be happy because they have built five health centres. They may consider their “result” a success. But in reality, we only stated an output here, meaning a direct result of a set of activities.

But can we say that they brought a positive change for people? What if the medical supplies do not arrive? Or the right health workers are not available? Or the health centres are not accessible?  This means that at the end what they did was not a success but at best useless, and at worst it can even be harmful.

Now, if you say that your objective/your project is going to be a success if and only if “the people are able to access free and qualitative health care in a sustainable way and within one hour of reach”, now you are practicing what I consider the Results Based Management approach. You will not be satisfied with outputs only, but with clear proof that you contributed to ensuring positive change in the lives of the people affected.

What is the balance between theory and practice in this course. What techniques do you use?

As you can’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book on cycling, you can’t improve your project management just by going through the theory. Of course, we do review the theoretical aspects as they give the whole meaning to the process we aim to achieve; but none of this “theory” will work without practicing it.

So, with this course we take advantage of different techniques of learning such as peer-to peer, group work on case studies, self-study, live sessions, and forum discussions. This allows students to learn from the lecturers, and importantly one another, unpack any confusion, and use scenarios to put the theory into practice.

Does this course benefit all humanitarian professionals or is it targeted at a particular level of management? 

This is again a good question because we often consider that only project managers must be qualified in project management. Yet everyone recognizes the importance of teamwork in project management. So, of course the primary audience is current and future project managers. However, the course can also be relevant for project team members and senior management because a good working knowledge of the process is relevant and useful to all.

Students can take a short or full course in Humanitarian Project Cycle Management. The dates are:

21 February – 25 March 2022 (Full version)

21 February – 11 March 2022 (Short version)

Application deadline: 30 January 2022

For more information please visit: https://humanitarianstudies.ch/education/humanitarian-project-cycle-management/  and for a bio on Sandrine Delattre please visit: https://humanitarianstudies.ch/team/sandrine-delattre/.