International investment bankers, consultants and academics from all over the world converged on Bradford in April to discuss ways to make social and economic development projects more effective, to mark 25 years of the city's university development and project planning centre (DPPC).
Jon Wilmshurst, chief economist at the United Kingdom's Overseas Development Administration, said some $200 billion per year is invested in infrastructure projects alone in developing countries, and only 7 per cent is financed by the private sector.
Although infrastructure remains important, the ODA is moving more into projects and programmes in social sectors such as health and education. Here the costs are relatively easy to determine but the benefits are much harder to quantify, according to Lyn Squire, director of the policy research department at the World Bank.
The bank approves about 200 projects a year but is putting more effort into looking at public expenditure programmes and the balance between public and private choice. He believes that the bank's skills in project appraisal would be strengthened if an independent office within the bank had responsibility for project appraisal as was the case before 1982, rather than the staff responsible for projects in the operational divisions doing it themselves. "It's rather like students grading their own exams," he said.
The nature of many projects has changed with a shift from a blueprint approach, where top-down planning methods were used, to what Dr Wilmshurst called a "process" approach. About a third of ODA projects, particularly in the social sectors, research and institutional development, use this approach today. "We know where we want to get but not how to get there. We set off, monitor, and vary the techniques as we go along," he said.
David Pearce, director of the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, argued that a main consideration for all development planning should be to integrate the environment in project appraisal.
Projects have gone out of fashion in the development business in the past decade, with greater focus on sectoral programmes and structural adjustment policies.
John Cushworth, head of the DPPC, said: "The reality is that whatever strategies are adopted or new terms used, projects remain the key tactic by which organisations fulfil their development objectives."
Lawrence Honny, a former doctoral student at DPPC, and lecturer at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, says that in many countries there is an increasing emphasis on decentralisation. He now works as a consultant and finds there is a shift in responsibility for investment and development to the district level.
The changes are reflected in the centre's work. The professional development and training programme, research and consultancy work is concentrated in six main areas: institutional and management development, the environment, economic policy, gender, infrastructure, and enterprise.
Since 1970, more than 4,200 study fellows from 120 countries have taken part in over 200 short courses at the centre. They tend to have 15 to 20 years' experience and until recently came only from developing countries. In the past few years they have also started coming from the transitional economies in eastern Europe.
The centre also runs four masters degrees, a doctoral and research programme as well as providing consultancy services.
According to David Johns, Bradford's vice chancellor, the centre "is an example of what entrepreneurial academics are all about". The centre has built and is paying for its own building and most staff are paid for through its training, research and consultancy activities rather than the funding council. About a third of its Pounds 1.8 million turnover in 1993/94 came from commissioned work.