It’s easy to focus on the bad news in international development, in part because the bad is what makes the news. Bad things tend to happen quickly and dramatically. In 35 seconds on January 12, 2010, the Haitian earthquake killed over 230,000 people, whether directly or indirectly. Millions more were displaced. Thirty five seconds saw physical damages that equaled 120 percent of Haiti’s entire productive output over the entire 365 days of 2009.
It’s only natural to focus on an event in the same way your vision focuses on a single point. So why don’t we hear more good news in international development? It’s only natural. Good things tend to be a process, not an event. Another way of saying this is, bad things are easy to put a number on. It’s less compelling, not to mention more difficult, to put a number on something good. It’s been 11 months since the earthquake, so what good things have happened and how can we assess it?
For starters, let’s look at good things the same way we look at the bad. Here are some tidbits from USAID head Rajiv Shah’s assessment of his agency’s response to the catastrophe.
Where are the good outcomes? Right here! These are all measurable, specific, and relevant to the economic recovery of Haiti that might have easily been lost when trying to summarize 11 months of post-earthquake recovery efforts. Sometimes you can’t see the forest for all the trees, but other times you spend all your time looking for the forest that you forget the forest is a bunch of trees!
This type of thinking has not gone unnoticed in the development industry. USAID just rolled out major reforms intended to focus on measurable results in specific areas of priority: depth, not breadth. From a recent article on Devex: “Shah said the agency spends ‘way too much time’ assessing and reporting on process indicators, doing paperwork and working to deliver ‘almost a false sense of transparency’ that does not provide visitors or outsiders how much is really being spent on a program and results are being obtained.”
What does this mean for smaller NGOs? Well, I wont speak for all of them, but being smaller and more nimble does have its advantages. For one thing, small organizations (not to mention small budgets) make prioritizing goals a necessity. PDT Marketplace-Haiti has specific stated objectives and already has some success stories despite being less than two years old. As the project matures and the time for a more formal analysis comes, measuring results based on stated goals will be highly important.
So what about that forest? Will we ever find it? Should we even try? The answers are yes and yes. Every time a skeptic (they tend to be elderly Congressmen) asks “Where does all the money go?”, they have a valid point. Mistakes have been made in the development industry in the past 50 years. Many have been functional, but problems of perspective can be just important. For more general insight into why perspective matters, Hans Rosling’s TED talks is a real eye opener into the fallacies of trying to measure the forest without the trees. If that still isn’t your cup of tea, he swallows a sword at the end (not kidding). Much, much more could be written about the problems of finding the good news in development, but the good news about finding good news is that knowing where to look is already a step in the right direction.
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