KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

The #failure of development debate

with 5 comments

This is a late supplementary entry in J’s Second Aid Blog Forum on “Admitting Aid Failure” (my first entry was about  some of my own failures)

In the past I’ve blogged about the development hype lifecycle in which a new idea can slowly start to generate interest then in turn become hugely popular and oversold as the solution to everything, and then rapidly disappoint and become discredited, and only truly appreciated for what it has to offer (and not more) long after the initial interest has waned.

I also wrote in “Black and White” about how views on development issues often become polarized into for and against positions about a particular issue (The recent discussion on the Millennium Villages Project anyone).

I consider both of these to be important failures in how aid is discussed, priorities made, alliances built and funding allocated. In both cases both the volume and nature of attention is not in line with the merits or demerits of the approach or idea being discussed.  But  unfortunately these seem to typify a lot of  public aid communication but also aid debate among aid workers and development experts.

I also think we’ve witnessed a bit of both of these in this week’s discussions on failure. David Week’s detailed critique of the current interest in failure (fad surfing in the development boardroom) both dismisses it as a fad and for being wrong in one fell swoop.

In the end I think we need to see discussion of failure (or any other hot aid topic whether it be MVPs, microcredit, cookstoves, RCTs or whatever)  not as an unequivocal good, nor as a waste of time, nor as an aid fad – but a potentially useful approach to help improve discussion and learning around aid – not as a single approach that is preferable to any other, nor as something that stands alone – but rather an interesting approach that can help us  examine our work differently and can usefully be combined or complemented by other approaches. This doesn’t mean there is not a useful role for critique – but that we might progress further if promotion and critique of ideas be more nuanced and less polarized for and against – and if we admit that neither “side” is fully right, nor are we likely to know whether the realizable potential of something is the same thing as a heated intellectual deconstruction of an idea in theory.

In terms of the week’s discussion on failure – I don’t see it either as a magic bullet that will transform organizational learning and therefore aid, nor do I see it as a purely superficial fad with no value. Nor do we know if the current efforts will be sustainable and have an impact. Documentation and analysis of failure is an input to an organizational learning process, not the whole thing.

I see discussing failure not as an end in itself, but as a push or step towards a more rigorous approach to learning and quality in aid work. In many development organizations there is insufficient interest and incentive to look at quality improvement and learning from mistakes since the incentives lead people to tell as positive a picture as possible. While various improvement techniques exist (such as Kaizen, Six-Sigma and other tools described in David’s post) it’s very difficult to introduce them into the aid world when the culture and incentives do not provide the fertile ground needed for them to work.

To me it’s not a grave error that some of the failure reports that have been produced so far concentrate mostly on peripheral or design issues rather than fundamental failures if the alternative  is not to acknowledge failures at all. Starting with the simple  perhaps less politically challenging issues can be a good way to open up a dialogue and make a small change in the culture which create the space for a more fundamental appraisal later. It might also provoke an interest in some more rigorous methods. Eventually.

I for one am interested to see where these experiments in learning from failure will lead us. I don’t think we know yet, so let’s keep an open mind.


Written by Ian Thorpe

October 27, 2011 at 9:20 am

Posted in rants

5 Responses

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  1. I don’t think that looking at failure is new in development. Evaluations always try to capture “what went wrong”. What I do find refreshing is the idea that this can be talked about openly, without fear or shame, which opens the door to reflection and actual learning. I agree it’s not an end, but I do think it’s a pretty important part of the process to better aid work


    October 27, 2011 at 11:56 am

  2. Very nicely put. I agree that the idea of “it’s the best thing since sliced bread” is equally as unhelpful as the “this is all bad” attitude.

    Thanks for putting good words to these thoughts.

    Sebastian Rottmair

    October 27, 2011 at 12:23 pm

  3. As someone who also often takes the middle road, I think this is a great perspective. The admitting failure idea should not get too much hype, nor should it be cast aside as a mere fad before it has even begun to be put to use.

    Nicely done.

  4. Well done to call for dialogue rather than debate, the worlds problems need more of it.

    For me failure is judgement at the end of a (planned) process. You fail because you did not do what you planned to do, or planned to achieve. While it is certainly good to learn from a whole process at the end, it is even better to learn and adjust while you are at it. As ‘Onsanity’ points out above, evaluations have identified ‘failure’ for years. Yet the same mistakes are being made again and again because key actors are not learning, not even at the end.

    Admitting failure is great, as long as it is done by the various contributing parties together. They can look at their assumptions at the start of the process, as well as reflect on what each party could have done differently. It would be especially helpful to get donors to articulate the part they played in specific failures. Seems to me that such donor learning is critical for culture and incentives to shift from “results reporting” towards “learning and quality process reporting”. Some shift is actually predicted in the Philantropy corner — read this The slower Aid bureaucracy may follow suit?

    Lucia Nass

    November 1, 2011 at 2:17 am

  5. It is fascinating to see this focus on ‘failure’. In many ways – absolutely on the ball. I would take a slightly different perspective – let’s talk about vulnerability instead of ‘failure’ as such. That is – why not set up projects that WILL fail UNLESS locals REALLY DO support them?

    Jim Harries

    November 22, 2011 at 1:39 am

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