What do you do during the identification-phase of the project cycle?

In the identification stage, we have to define the basic lines of a project among all the parties involved, based on a joint analysis of felt needs and a commitment on the intervention strategy to be followed to meet these needs.

Development projects must first and foremost address “priority felt needs“, otherwise it is difficult to guarantee the contribution of those affected once the external intervention has been completed, as they will apply their resources to cover their “priority felt needs”, and not others.

Example: In a community where there is no school, access to education may appear to be a “need” to an external agent. However, for the population, it may not be a “priority felt need” because they do not identify the relationship between education and the access to the full range of fundamental human rights. A need can become a “priority felt need” with awareness campaigns.

In the identification phase, priorities of the different participants should be analyzed. In the event that priorities do not coincide, it is not advisable to impose the criteria of some over others.

In order to reach a dialogue between all the parties affected by a possible project, participatory diagnostic methodologies should be used, which allow different points of view to be presented.

It is also highly recommended to use visual techniques that allow the main ideas to be written down in a place that is visible to everyone. For example, we can use colored card (post-it) that will be posted on a board readable by all participants.


The first step we have to take when we start the process of identifying a project is to define who the stakeholders are. They have to be listened to and they have to participate actively so that they feel like they are playing a leading role in the intervention.

Once we have identified all participants and defined their level of participation in the project, we can move on to the problems analysis.


In this analysis, the problems of a collective are studied and ordered according to a cause-effect relationship in order to draw up a problem tree, which is an outline of the current negative reality that the project aims to change.

The problem analysis should:

  1. Detect all problems related to the area of analysis, without confusing what is a problem or negative state, with what is the “absence of a solution”.
Example: “lack of a school in the village” is not the problem itself but an absence of solution. The real problem underlying the absence of a school in the village is “school-age children have no access to education”.
  1. Identify the focal problem. Choose the problems that seem to be the main ones, to which the rest are related because they are either their cause or consequence.
  2. Develop the problem tree. Organise all the problems around the focal problem, so that the causes are underneath, like roots, and the effects are above, like branches.


Once we have clearly identified the problems, we turn them into solutions by identifying the objectives we want to achieve with the project. We develop an objective tree. The objectives tree is a representation of the positive future reality that the project aims to achieve. It is important not to confuse the objectives or positive states, which must be lasting, with the actions needed to achieve them.

Example: “build a school in the village” is not a correct expression of a lasting goal. Instead we can say “children in the village have regular access to education”.

All the elements of the problem tree are transformed from top to bottom into objectives. The problems are now formulated as positive conditions.

In some cases, different interventions can be implemented to achieve the same objective.  Analyze all the alternatives in order to choose the most advantageous project strategy is also important.

Example: in order for children to have regular access to education, a school can be built, teachers can be trained, families can be made aware of the importance of education, educational material can be purchased, etc. Depending on the type of project we are designing, one of the identified strategies can be prioritized.


The SWOT matrix (Strengths – Weaknesses – Opportunities – Threats) is a good tool to be able to systematically analyse the reality and identify the main strategies.

Strengths: advantages that are intrinsic to the strategy.

Weaknesses: disadvantages intrinsic to the strategy

Opportunities: advantages that can be exploited from the environment

Threats: disadvantages that can be derived from the environment.

Strengths are the positive internal aspects of the organisation or country, which can be built upon in the future. Weaknesses are the internal negative aspects that depend on the organisation, for which there is therefore significant room for improvement.
Opportunities are the positive external possibilities that can be exploited in the current context. Threats are external problems, obstacles or constraints that may prevent or limit the development of a country or sector.


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About Felipe Nitsche

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Felipe is an expert in international cooperation and humanitarian action. Extensive experience in human rights mainstreaming perspectives, social cohesion, project design, women's economic empowerment and generation of opportunities for refugees, migrants and host community members. He has worked in different countries in South America, Africa and Asia as program coordinator in the field of child protection, refugees and livelihood.  Since 2019 he is based in Spain, where he works in humanitarian action projects with refugee population.
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