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MDTF Activities > Lessons from a project that’s beaten the odds

Lessons from a project that’s beaten the odds

World Bank Feature Blog by Mr Tony Verheijen, Serbia Country Manager, 25 September 2017.

As I packed up my desk after four years as the World Bank Country Manager for Serbia, I thought back on some of the exciting programs we have managed and how I can apply lessons from these to my next post as the Country Manager for Tunisia - a different country, region, and context.

With that in mind, I'm sharing some reflections on one interesting project that has beaten the odds and achieved significant results - the Justice Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF) in Serbia. This project – a hybrid trust-fund that combines Bank advisory expertise with implementation support - operates much like a dynamic SWAP for the Serbian justice sector. 

The Justice MDTF is making a difference in a very difficult area - addressing judicial performance issues that are universally seen as a key impediment to private sector development in Serbia.

So here are 7 lessons which I believe have contributed to the project's success.

1.  The justice system is critical to achieving the World Bank's twin goals

In the past, the World Bank tended to shy away from deep engagement with the justice sector, believing it to be too hard, too fragmented, or even too political.  However, given the importance of a performing judiciary in creating a strong business climate, ignoring judicial reform comes at our peril. When it comes to investment climate reform, the Bank has deep expertise and comparative advantages, and judicial performance is a central aspect of this issue.

Rather standing alone (which judicial reform projects often tend to do), the MDTF is fully integrated into a dynamic country portfolio. The judicial reform team has worked with teams from Finance & Markets, from Trade and Competitiveness, with the public administration reform support team (on functional reviews), and, critically, with IFC on insolvency and business climate reform.  

When the Bank was asked to conduct multiple functional reviews across the government, the MDTF led a review of the justice sector to improve resource utilization there. It is now working with the tax team on tax litigation, and with Social Development on access to justice for vulnerable groups.  Through collaboration, our justice engagement adds value to the Bank's country portfolio.

2.  A sector-wide approach increases leverage

The MDTF engages with 10 different national stakeholders across the justice sector, including ministries, courts, prosecutors, police, Civil Society Organizations, and training institutes. Thus, the Bank team knows what's going on across the sector and the different stakeholder perspectives, personalities, capabilities, and interests. The team can therefore identify where common ground lies and where linkages and synergies can be exploited. The client appreciates that kind of deep knowledge of how the system works.  As a result, the program has graduated from donor-focused funding projects to a dialogue and a partnership.  This is the essence of convening power at the sector level, and an ideal role for the Bank.

3.  Multi-donor mechanisms create economies of scale

By pooling the contributions of donors, the MDTF's impact becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  Dialogue with the client is more detailed, nuanced, and focused on reform - because it is easier for the client to engage with one team, rather than juggling a cacophony of preferences, projects and reporting arrangements of multiple donors.

Reflecting the economies of scale, the costs for project implementation are also lower. Bear in mind though, the Bank is essentially absorbing the burden of coordinating the preferences and administrative arrangements of multiple donors. 

Many long hours have been spent by the task team shuttling between donors and beneficiaries ensuring that the project meets the needs of many different interests. 

Ultimately though, this is more than worth the effort.

4. We must always adjust to the dynamic country context

The trust fund was set up at the request of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to support the EU accession process. But immediately after setup, the judiciary was plagued by divisive judicial reforms that resulted in the sacking of hundreds of judges and prosecutors. In the political storm, the sector was brought to a standstill.

In response, the task team took stock, identified where reform opportunities lay, and found space for quieter, practical reform opportunities, until the storm blew over. After this, the team started working more across the sector, not just with the MOJ but also with judges, prosecutors, professional associations, and civil society organizations. This was possible thanks to flexibility in the project design which allows to make changes in the implementation with agreement from the donors through a management committee structure.

So rather than directly supporting the accession process, the project in its early days contributed to analytic work and helped create the foundations upon which Serbia could prepare for accession when the time came. So when the opportunity presented itself, foundations were formed, relationships had been built, the team was prepared, and the MDTF responded quickly.

5. Experiment, improve, and adapt

The team values experimentation and adaptation, drawing much from the famed "problem-driven iterative approach" (PDIA) to development and applying that to a sector-wide context.

They often start a new activity in coordination with another agency, learn lessons quickly, and then apply what works to scale up with other agencies and across the sector. This approach also engenders positive competition among the agencies.

When one agency starts to make progress, the others see the benefit and can become 'green with envy.'  Some of the MDTF's most effective work has been replicated and scaled up in this way, creating a virtuous cycle.

Principles of continual improvement also apply to the trust fund itself. Periodic management committee meetings contain a standing agenda item where donors and beneficiaries are asked to provide feedback or suggestions, which feed into a constant evolution of the MDTF as a flexible and responsive vehicle.

6. Love thy Donor

The team goes to considerable effort to ensure that donors are satisfied with the MDTF's work.

Visibility is always front and center. Modern diplomacy and communications demand more than stamping donor logos on publications, and new technology creates new opportunities for outreach and dialogue. A dedicated website – – provides updates, blurbs on recent activities, data, pictures, links to blogs and other resources, providing full transparency for both beneficiaries and donors.

Donors can see aide memoires – and even the clean audit letters – so they can trust in this transparency. By keeping the sector abreast of implementation progress, the team deepened its dialogue with key partners, increased trust fund contributions, and enabled the project to increase its level of ambition.

7. Develop complementary skillsets in your task team,

The Justice MDTF is led by a DC-based TTL, and Belgrade-based co-TTL. Both have experience in justice and public administration reform from different contexts. With complementary backgrounds, genders and perspectives, the two work symbiotically so that the Bank offers stakeholders both subject matter expertise and international examples, together with local context to provide 'best-fit' solutions.

Together, the TTLs have cultivated a dedicated team of experts who are trusted by local stakeholders to deliver targeted TA. Most experts are based in the region and have worked in multiple countries, so communication is easy and TA is timely and responsive to needs.

We often look at success stories at the Bank, but we don't often examine more closely 'why' they succeed, and precisely how our business model contributes to that success (or otherwise). As I move on, I take these lessons with me. And I hope that by sharing them, you may also.

Sep 25, 2017 | Tony Verheijen