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Beneficiaries, Idealism and Admitting Failure

In his second Aid Forum, Tales from the Hood asks about one of the latest trends in international aid and development: Admitting Failure.

This is a particularly complicated question to answer. The admitting failure sphere hasn’t developed enough to truly answer what the outcome is: does admitting failure harm the organizations that do so in any way (e.g. decreased funding) or does it lead to more efficient and successful aid projects?

It may be  idealistic and unproven, but admitting failure is an important way to identify how development aid can be made more effective, which is something that is desperately needed in the aid world (oh, let me count the ways: one, two, three…). Just as accountability and transparency is important in the development sphere, so is an organization or method that can induce these from organizations. Though I love Saundra’s Good Intentions blog and the hard work she puts into it, I don’t think she, and other aid bloggers, should (or can) be the only watchdogs for development aid.

The Waylaid Dialectic writes that aid workers and bloggers are not the right group of people to pose this question to. Instead we should ask these questions to the tax payers, journalists who report on these issues and the donating public.  He raises a valid point, but he’s missing the most important group: the “beneficiaries” of development aid. The members of this group are the only people who can accurately tell us, and with honesty rather than vanity, whether our programs and projects are truly working. We seem to easily forget about those being “served.” Boy, do we love talking about ourselves. But they must not be overlooked.

Aid and development bloggers and NGO’s staff members know if their projects are or aren’t working. I’m not suggesting we should scrap the idea that they should share failures and successes. But introducing a component that includes the beneficiaries of development organizations is invaluable.

Enlisting the participation of this group of people is going to take time, creativity and ingenuity. Journalists need to play a major role in this. Some creative examples of this have already happened, such as Villages in Action, where residents of a Ugandan village gave their input about the MDGs (and guess what, none of them had even heard of it); or Global Giving’s Storyteller project, which collects stories from community members and analyzes them.

This is the direction I hope to see the Admitting Failure movement go. Improvements can be made, but criticizing Admitting Failure as “CSR by any other name” is not particularly helpful. Participating, even if for self-promotion, will at the bare minimum help organizations learn from each other’s mistakes and may help those “failed” organizations figure out how they can deliver aid better. On the other hand, the only downside is that an organization admits failure for self-promotion and learns nothing – which doesn’t have any worse effects than an organization that continues to implement a project that may be failing.

Admitting Failure could gain momentum and lead to some form of change in an industry that takes a lot of slack for needing just that. Or it could not change a thing. Either way, we shouldn’t forget: if the goal of development aid, as it should be, is to eliminate the need for aid, then publicly admitting failure is an absolute necessity of the industry. Let’s embrace and encourage it.

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  1. Nancy says:

    It’s a very big mission to eleminate aid, but to your question as to admit to failure, my personal answer is as follows:
    Before any one can admit to failure we need to ask the question as to WHEN we/organisations have failed. Is it when finding was inapropriate used, or when we/ organisations have not done what promised? and this list is endless.
    Yet my personal opinion is to use any kind of failure as feedback. If something doesn’t work out one way, it may do in another. Communication is one big key in making changes happen, in us and for any kind of organization and between them.

    Many thanks for the post

  2. Wayne says:

    Hi Morgan,

    I was pointed to this article by a friend, and I wanted to reply that it’s a great piece! I agree admitting failure is a necessity that we should embrace and encourage! And I also agree with Nancy that it’s a lot about integrating feedback. Interesting that you’re calling it an Admitting Failures Movement.

    Couple points where we diverge:
    1. ‘Admitting failures is idealistic and unproven’—I’d argue admitting failures is highly pragmatic and the private sector figured this out long ago, the development sector just needs to catch up. Quick example is Toyota’s Kaizen approach.

    2. ‘People know if their projects are or aren’t working’—I would hope so, but experience suggests otherwise. Though to be fair, knowing what is working is a hard thing to actually do well (also from experience), especially when you get down to the social impact level. Often we’re just not asking the right questions to know if things are working, and then there’s the challenge of defining what “working” actually means. Too often “working” means hitting the numbers like ‘beneficiaries reached’ (classic development sector problem of output oriented approaches).

    What I also like about admitting failures is the ruthless honesty that it can bring to the table, and the key is doing this in a safe space. The process of an organization and individual within that organization reflecting honestly about what went right and wrong is invaluable. It can generate the internal pain/pressure to change, and that internal motivation to change is often what’s missing.


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