Learning from Failure in Development

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Failure is a touchy subject when it comes to development aid. Donors are afraid of letting taxpayers and philanthropists know that their contribution has failed to bring about the expected effects. NGOs and international development agencies are afraid of letting their donors know that they have failed. Development professionals in the field are afraid of falling short of the expectations of the head office. Even local people and organizations, who should be benefiting and becoming empowered through development aid, often hide failures because they are afraid of not being considered in next year's aid budget. Evaluations at the end of projects are meant to help understand what and why went wrong, but they rarely impact the organization's structure or approach, perhaps because there is not enough emphasis on the roots of failures and the lessons learned.

To address this problem, last year Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) launched Admitting Failure, an online portal for development practitioners and organizations wanting to learn from their mistakes. The portal's motto puts it clearly: "The development community is failing...to learn from failure. Instead of recognizing these experiences as learning opportunities, we hide them out of fear and embarrassment."

EWB launched the portal after realizing that their Failure Reports were attracting attention in the development community. These reports, precursors of the portal, impacted the organization's priorities. EWB is specialized in engineering solutions for the poor, but learned that it needed to emphasize social and institutional aspects above engineering solutions in order to achieve long-lasting positive impacts.

EWB's David Damberger explains the origins and philosophy of Admitting Failure at TEDxYYC.

One of my own experiences with failure took place in a water project in South India. I was part of a team implementing several projects related to post-tsunami reconstruction. The conditions were challenging, but we managed to get the job done. One of the projects was in a fishing village where the tsunami had spoiled all the underground fresh water sources with saline water. We installed a long pipeline from a secure water source and a solar pumping system. When I left, the water was running, and the project seemed a success.

However, some months after I left, there were technical problems that made the system collapse and the whole infrastructure was abandoned. Looking back, I understood that the origin of the failure was the lack of measures taken to ensure that there were local people capable of maintaining the water system. I now know that some measures were taken afterwards, but the investment was questioned altogether.

The fear of being questioned has arguably prevented many development practitioners and leaders from looking at the long-term impacts of initiatives beyond tangible outcomes. Contrary to what aid skeptics may find in their analysis of data and official reports, aid cannot be blamed for ineffectiveness or wrongdoing in general terms. Critics must take into account fluctuating political trends affecting aid, thirst for quick measurable results or the arbitrary goodwill of philanthropists. Moreover, critics can help NGOs and development practitioners analyze and learn from failures on the ground.

Each development agent and project is tied to rapidly changing local conditions and has to deal with the difficult task of gathering productive and stable teams under adequate leadership. Just as in the private sector, where several ventures can go wrong before reaching business success, several development projects may go wrong before an organization completes a project with a long-lasting positive impact. In other words, all failed initiatives are part of the process of achieving a good one, as long as we admit failure and learn from it.

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  1. I would love to see this kind of reflective practice in American urban development/renewal communities. I don't think that will happen - all practices have to be engaged in 'worlding'.