The #failure of development debate
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.