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Project Design

The revitalization of project design at USAID recognizes that development is highly complex, requiring that the design process itself be responsive to Mission-specific circumstances, and stresses the need to assess and reassess project implementation through learning and adapting.

Projects Defined

USAID's definition of a project is both classic and highly specific to the Agency's approach to development assistance program cycle. Conceptually, USAID definition of a project is consistent with the usage of that term globally. A project is:

A set of complementary activities, over an established timeline and budget, intended to achieve a discrete development result, often aligned with an Intermediate Results (IR) in the CDCS Results Framework. Taken together, a Mission’s suite of project designs provides the operational plans for achieving the objectives of the CDCS or other applicable strategic plan.

Beyond this, other characteristics of a project are specific to USAID. These defining characteristics include the fact that:

  • USAID projects do not stand alone; rather they are USAID management arrangements through which elements of a CDCS strategy are achieved. Normally the discrete development result on which a project focuses will be one of the IRs under a Mission CDCS. Less frequently, a project's focus could be a DO, for a small program, or, for a large program, a project's focus might be on a sub-IR. Project design, implementation planning and oversight and project monitoring and evaluation are USAID staff responsibilities.
  • A USAID project is not an implementing mechanism; rather it is a planning and management framework under which several activities, or project sub-components, are funded and executed on an integrated basis to achieve an IR. While some activities, such as a policy dialogue, are carried out by USAID staff, most activities under a project are carried out through designated implementing mechanisms, such as a legally binding agreements with an executing agency (generally a USG agency or a host government ministry) or an implementing entity (contractor, grantee, host government entity, such as the Customs Administration, or an international organization). USAID decides on the number and mix of implementing mechanisms by determining the best means to achieve the project purpose.

This section of the website is designed to help you develop the M&E and learning related aspects of a Project Design. The section is divided into six segments, as listed in the menu below. Several key subtopics and tools found in this section are also highlighted in this menu. You can go through this section sequentially, by using the forward arrow at the bottom of each page, or you can jump directly to topics that interest you. The Program Cycle menu at the top of this page and the Sitemap provide even more detailed views of the coverage of this section, should you wish to consult them.

Project Design Elements That Involve Monitoring, Evaluation or Learning

The Project Design Process

There are two general phases to the development of a project design. In Phase One, the Mission defines the preliminary purpose of the proposed project and a roadmap of the analytic, and other, steps necessary to complete the PAD. This phase concludes in an approved Project Design Plan (PDP). In Phase Two, the Mission completes key analyses and synthesizes these analyses into a theory of change and associated implementation plan, which includes a brief description of the family of activities that will execute the project design. This phase concludes in an approved PAD.

USAID Leadership of the Project Design Process

Major steps of the project design process must be led by USAID staff, involving participation from all relevant offices. The designated USAID project design team must oversee the analysis, conceptualization and detailed design aspects of the project. Collaboration, consultations and peer reviews with experts should be used, but USAID staff must assume a leading role. USAID staff must serve as the principal liaison with partner government officials, local stakeholders and with other donors in establishing project priorities and broad design parameters.

The authorization approves the PAD, sets out the basic scope of the design and its duration, defines certain fundamental terms and conditions of the assistance, and approves an overall total budget level for the project. During the design process, the choices of implementation mechanisms are made and basic scopes of work/terms of reference can be drafted, including budgets allocated for each mechanism. Early work of this sort facilitates the preparation of RFPs or RFAs for USAID-direct awards and the drafting of bilateral agreements in the case of G2G agreements initiated once a project has been authorized.