Wrecking an International Project
Notes from a saboteur's vade mecum
- / -
Reprinted in International Associations
1972, pp. 487-490, with minor modifications by the author, from and earlier version
under the title More than 100 Ways to Sabotage a Project: notes from a saboteur's
(Urban and Social Change Review,
USA), 5, 2, Spring 1972,
pp. 67-71). [PDF version
Despite its title and the nature of the contents,
this list is published here for a serious purpose. Some such checklist
should be in the hands of anyone anxious to see a project effectively implemented
so that he or she can ensure that each administrative step made in response
to the project proposal is not disguised sabotage. In fact ' in case of
doubt' the burden of proof should be on those responding to the project
proposal. NG0s will recognize many of these methods from their associations
A. Use of time lags
- Respond too soon.
- Respond too late.
- Arrange a meeting to discuss the matter at
some convenient future date.
- Time the critical meeting, or invite the critical
intervention, so that it interferes with people's desire to go away for
lunch, for a weekend, or for a holiday period.
- Ensure that the critical intervention is given
just too little time, so that the arguments appear incoherent.
- Agree to research the topic in depth, so as
to introduce a delay.
- Encourage submission of the project through
a body which already has an overload of projects for consideration.
- Encourage submission of the project at a time
when budgetary allocations for the following period have already been decided.
B. Use of distance
- Condemn with facts which cannot be countered
without getting them from some physically distant spot.
- Organize the critical meeting in a place just
too far away (in terms of travel funds) to permit people critical to the
project to participate.
- Ensure that the proposers are asked to present
the project to an audience in places to which they do not have the resources
to travel, particularly by stressing the importance of a "regional" focus
- if they can manage it once, repeat the request for another region until
finances run out.
C. Use of funds
- Offer too much money; this leads to acquisition
of staff and equipment not essential to the project, complacency, and possible
arousal of more interest in the fringe benefits of working on the project
than in its original objectives.
- Offer too little money.
- Encourage the proposers to request funds at
the same time as requesting approval when it is known that the project
will be rejected for budgetary reasons (even though general approval or
sponsorship would be sufficient, probably, to ensure (fiat like kinds could
be obtained from other sources).
- Encourage the proposers to request extensive
funding When this is liable to ensure its rejection as "exaggerated";
or excessively modest funding, when this is liable to ensure its rejection
as "unrealistic, inadequate, and ineffective."
D. Use of cultural and working
- Recommend that proposal be first discussed
informally with the person when the latter is irritated by contacts which
have been initial: formally; or alternatively, recommend formal contact
when the p son prefers contacts to be first est fished informally.
- Ensure that, when the proposer to meet people
critical to approval of the project, he is subjected to some form of culture
shock which will antagonize him, disturb his poise, or make him appear
gauche. (e.g., he is forced to wait long past the appointed hour, obliged
to discuss generalities as a lengthy preliminary, fails to make provision
for a bribe considered normal in 1 interlocutor's culture, etc.)
- Ensure that there is a wide difference in
age and life style between the proposer and people he has to encounter
who are critical to approval of' the project, in order to establish the
proposer's image as a cheeky youngster or an out of date "fuddy-duddy".
- Ensure that the proposer entertains people
critical to the approval of the project in a manner liable to cause offence
or boredom which will reflect on the proposer's judgement (e.g., ensure
errors based on diet restrictions such as taking a vegetarian to a steak
house; on moral principles, such as taking a puritan to a strip joint;
or musical taste, such as taking a musical puritan to a discotheque, etc.)
- Ensure that the committee getting the project
is overfed and oversupplied with liquor and excessive hospitality to make
effective work impossible.
E. Use of intellectual differences
- Interpret the terms used differently from
the sense in which they were intended:
- by the proposer
- commonly understood
- Ensure that the proposal is written at a technical
level which is either irritatingly incomprehensible to the person reading
it, or as all alternative, is an insult to his intelligence.
F. Use of image, competence and
- Criticize the proposers as incompetent or
- Assert that the person or organization is
not representative or qualified.
- Condemn proposal as irresponsible "just when
we were beginning to sort things out".
- Discredit the proposer by locating "true facts"
about him which are irrelevant to what is proposed.
- Structure the setting in which the proposal
is presented such that the proposer appears to be criticizing past actions
(or reactions) of his audience, or appears to be wasting time on the need
for niggling minor improvements.
- Ensure that the critical presentation is made
in a setting in which (irrelevant) characteristics of the proposer will
antagonize the audience (e.g., presented by a person of Jewish extraction
to an audience with Arab sympathies, by a Hindu to a loyal Moslem audience,
by a woman to an audience from anti-feminist cultures).
- Ask for a written report when the proposers
are unlikely to be able to structure it according to the required style,
but avoid it if the written report is liable to be too well prepared and
- Ensure that the proposers do not get the opportunity
to present the project to an audience if they have skilled and persuasive
orators at their disposal; alternatively, ask for such a presentation if
they have little experience of oral presentation.
- Ensure that, when tile proposers have assembled
a team prepared to argue all the facts, the audience is composed of persons
liable to be antagonized by eggheads. Alternatively, assemble an audience
of tough (hostile) experts when the proposers are only prepared for a non-expert
- Encourage written submission of the project
in the form of a stencilled document when an offset or printed (professional)
document is normal. alternatively, encourage submission of a deluxe document
when the latter is liable to excite suspicion.
G. Use of public relations
- Pay great attention go through all the motions,
receptions, etc., flatter the person or organization, and do nothing.
- Decorate the organization making the proposal
-- i.e. praise initiative rather than follow it up.
- Use public relations machinery to disguise
inaction or minimum action.
- Overpraise the project so that other people
become suspicious of ulterior motives.
- Encourage the proposers to lobby those who
are irrelevant to the project, or definitely hostile, and avoid pointing
out to them those who are likely to be powerful supporters.
- Ensure that there are foul-ups in protocol
on the occasion of the presentation with regard to the number of seats
available, the allocation of seats to VIPs, who is introduced (or not introduced)
to whom, etc., in order to build up hostility to the proposers.
- Encourage the proposer's organization to issue
a comrnuniqui or other document on the project when it is known that this
will be considered a breach of procedure, irresponsible and premature by
the body reviewing the project; or alternatively, avoid suggesting such
a communiqui when the reviewing body or its members like to receive publicity.
- Introduce or describe the proposer as an "eminent
authority" on the project topic, when he is riot, thus arousing the antagonism
of the real eminent authorities who will vet the project; or, alternatively,
fail to mention that the proposer is the most eminent authority, when he
is, and thus ensure that less attention is given to his views.
- If a meeting is required, ensure that participation
is free if this is appropriate or would give the impression that people
would not come otherwise; or, alternatively, charge an entrance fee if
potential supporters would expect participation to be free.
- Imply that the presentation will be at an
informal 'shirtsleeves' meeting, and then ensure that all other participants
arrive expecting, and dressed for, a formal meeting., or, alternatively,
imply that the proposer should make a highly formal presentation when the
participants are liable to be turned off by it.
- Invite a charismatic celebrity (particularly
of the luscious female variety) so that the tone of the occasion is changed
and the presenter of the proposal is made to feel that the presentation
is an arid exercise by eggheads.
H. Use of organizational structure
- Appoint a commission to consider it.
- Ask for a written report.
- Refer the matter to some other department
- State your interest, but that you are too
busy - "come back next year".
- Ask for the project to be reformulated, especially
with the inclusion of key words like "development" and "environment".
- Refuse to "recognize" the person or organization.
- "The matter is under study, and we will report
on it shortly. until then it would be better to do nothing."
- "We are acting on the matter together with
the appropriate authorities."
- "We are appointing an expert to look into
- Organize a meeting with the proposers and
structure the meeting so that either they can say nothing, or what they
say can be interpreted in such a way as to support the status quo or one's
own program -- i.e., write up the report to reflect one's own views. Talk
to them and respect one's own views.
- Agree, with reservations, then jump on the
program at the first excuse: "I-told-you-so".
- Fund several projects simultaneously so that
they nullify each other.
- Refuse to receive documents, or, having received
them, pigeon-hole them.
- Ensure that the machinery to consider the
project is split into sufficient jurisdictional areas so that the project
must either be split into two (or more) or considered by separate departments
and therefore becomes a victim of jurisdictional and administrative problems
and loses its coherence.
- Wait for a permanent or temporary absence
of' the responsible person, if the newcomer is liable to react more unfavorably,
or, alternatively, speed up the submission if the outgoing person will
react more unfavorably.
- Obtain the recommendation or support of a
body or person in disfavor or whose credibility is low prior to submission,
or, alternatively, ensure that such a body transmits the project on to
the next phase. ("kiss-of-death")
- Attempt to tie the project into the general
framework of a broader program which will probably be abandoned shortly,
or have its non-essential projects eliminated.
- Inject the project into a setting fraught
with political issues so that it will be seized upon by one side or the
other as a pawn in negotiation arid dropped as a concession when a compromise
solution has to be reached.
- Ensure that the project is associated with
an empire-building faction within the bureaucratic structure so that it
will be rejected or restricted by those outside the empire, or alternatively,
associate it with the latter so that the empire builders will consider
it a threat.
- Encourage the proposers to rewrite the project
in terms of a broader program framework when the approving body requires
specific projects, or alternatively, to rewrite it as a more specific program
when broader implications have to be stressed to ensure approval.
- Suggest that it would be more appropriate
to submit the proposal via a particular representative body, when it is
known that the latter is unable to reach unanimity on ally issue.
- Ensure that the proposal is submitted to everybody
but the right one, so that a strenuous attempt is seen to have been made.
- Ensure that the proposal is initially submitted
too low down the hierarchy so that it lacks status when it is then submitted
to the appropriate person higher up the hierarchy; alternatively, submit
it too high up the hierarchy so that it is resented as an imposition when
it is finally referred down to the appropriate level.
- Ensure that file proposal is rejected by showing
that it has already been tried by experts in the matter and "experience"
shows that it not work.
- Ensure that the proposal is eagerly accepted
for resume study, then delay notification of' the negative response for
as long as it is possible to maintain the illusion that a bit of patience
in working through the proper channels is the best solution despite the
progressive loss of relevance of the proposal as the months go by.
- Suggest the need for a pilot or trial project
when the proposal does not merit it; alternatively, encourage haste and
avoid a pilot project when one is essential for final success.
- Ensure that the proposers have to interact
with two departments, or a two-official team, one of whom appears in favor
and encouraging, the other hostile and discouraging. The encourager can
then blame every setback on the lack of comprehension of the discourager,
and the discourager can "reinterpret" every advance as temporary, and only
due to the abnormal weakness of the other. In this way the proposer is
always kept uncertain and will finally give up from frustration.
- Suggest that it would be injudicious to propose
a new project at this stage, because it might "rock the boat" and prevent
programs on a number of related issues currently under review.
- Ask for a detailed elaboration, and financial
estimates when this requires unavailable or scarce resources; or, alternatively,
fail to request such an elaboration when its absence will ensure rejection
at a later stage.
- Suggest that a complex computer study or data
collection project would be worthwhile as a preliminary, when the answers
are already known. and such a Project would be considered a waste of scarce
I. Use of prospective supporters
- Give resources and attention to dissident
groups within the proposing group, so as to split the leadership, support
and coherence of arguments.
- Give resources, praise and attention to those
expressing contrary views.
- Recommend that an international proposal should
be submitted to national governments via the national member bodies of'
the proposer's organization when it is known that there is little understanding
of' the prokect's significance at this level; alternatively, ensure that
it is submitted at the international level when it is known that there
is a powerful lobby prepared to act at the national level, but that international
coordination is weak.
- Undertake the same tactics when dealing with
state and federal or local and state agencies.
- Lobby the proposer's supporters, particularly
national member organizations, and suggest to them how unwise tile project
is at this particular stage.
J. Use of superficial response,
decoys and lures
- State that it already forms part of your
program (whether you are doing anything about it or riot).
- Have a meeting on the topic, but do not do
anything about it.
- Pass a resolution.
- Call for a day or a year of remembrance or
celebration - as a token
- Cite action or programs -- particularly in
distant parts - as evidence that something is being done
- Offer the proposer a job on a different project.
- Suggest that the person write a book, or start
a periodical, or organize an information service on the topic.
- Consider a narrow aspect of what needs to
be done, ignoring the context. Propose and implement a program to handle
it, then acclaim one's own success, despite its irrelevance to the problem
as a whole.
- Devote considerable resources to discussing
the program and writing it up in a "positive" manner in annual reports,
and draw attention away from the actual budget for it.
- Start the program in an ambitious, positive
way and then terminate it on the first excuse.
- Express admiration for the insignificant,
superficial or irrelevant achievement, and ignore real achievements or
real problems which the program has failed to solve.
- Arrange for alternative meetings or projects
so as to attract away the appropriate people at the critical moment.
- Receive a person, agree to do something about
it so that the person leaves satisfied, then do nothing or support opposing
- Agree to act as intermediary to transfer a
message or draft to the responsible body in time for a critical meeting
and fail to do so -- while inserting one's own proposal in its place.
- Suggest to people in the chain reviewing the
project that their career advancement might be affected by approval of.
the project, or of a project coming from the proposer's organization.
- Suggest to the proposing organization that
funds could be guaranteed for another project, if efforts on the initial
project were abandoned.
- Focus criticism on "picky", minor details,
drawing attention away from the major content and substance of file proposal.
K. Use of technical matters
- Swamp the proposer with demands that prevent
him from accomplishing anything effective.
- "Misplace", or fail to distribute, or imply
that relevant documents have not arrived, at the critical moment.
- Fail to reproduce or translate sufficient
relevant documents so that only specially selected persons have copies
and others are not in a position to evaluate their contents, and they are
offended or annoyed by being so deprived - or develop the view that the
documents are therefore unimportant.
- Ensure that, when the proposers are to make
an oral presentation, the quality of the foreign languages interpretation
is low (to the point of making arguments ambiguous) ' or that interpreters
in key languages, or covering the specialized vocabulary, are unavailable.
Alternatively make use of highly intelligent interpreters to make common
sense arguments trivial, to the point of being insulting, or to make general
arguments inelegant, inconsistent, or incoherent.
- Ensure that the audio-visual equipment is
out of order or incompatible when the case is highly dependent on information
in charts and other graphic displays, or, alternatively, ensure that the
personnel operating the equipment are incompetent (e.g., that slides are
shown in the wrong order or upside down).
- Ensure that the final report of the meeting
at which the proposal is presented either ignores or de-emphasizes that
proposal or stresses the negative arguments concerning it. If the report
and its recommendations have to be approved by the meeting in a final session,
ensure that there is little time available so that any protests will appear
L. Use of project personnel
- Offer the proposer a job doing what he suggests
but ensuring that he works with constraints which will ensure that nothing
- Appoint an incompetent to run the program
or two incompatible competent people so that one will undermine the efforts
of the other.
- Supply funds, personnel and machines for
a program in such a way that nothing can be achieved.
- Give them enough rope "to hang themselves".
- Encourage the appointment of persons who
will he more concerned with (lie prestige of the program than with its
- Collaborate enthusiastically by offering
the services of all the wrong people, particularly the deadwood in one's
own department or in those with which one is in contact.
- Supply generous support, but make it a condition
that the project take on many assistants (for whom jobs cannot be found
elsewhere) whose personal objectives are to avoid work and any form of
M. Use of strong arm methods and
- For the sake of completeness, it should
not be forgotten that, in extreme cases, projects can be sabotaged using
a wide range of bribery, blackmail, threats of violence, etc.
N. Use of information
- Fail to make available the list of other
people known to be interested in such a project, or other information which
could facilitate its approval.
- Select facts from the proposal and summarize
them to give weight to opposing conclusions.
- Transfer a mass of documents on to the appropriate
body when it is confused by anything more than a summary, or a summary
when it is annoyed by the absence of detailed documents.
- Encourage submission of the project through
a body which already has an overload of projects for consideration.