Fail

This post is my contribution to the Second Aid Blog Forum on “Admitting Aid Failure?”

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“Admitting failure” has been slowly gaining momentum for a few years, now, at least in the aid world. It’s one of those ideas whose time, as MJ correctly points out, is just around the corner. Much like all things “local”, like “sustainability” before that, and “evidence-based programming” before that, “admitting failure” is the sexy new relief and development language convention of the month, and as MJ further points out, is almost certain to become de rigeur in proposals, monitoring and evaluation reports, and NGO external publications within the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for practitioners of humanitarian relief and development? I think it means at least the following:

PR v. Organizational Learning: As I wrote in the comments thread beneath @ShotgunShack’s (really good) post on “Mainstreaming Complexity and Failure”, I think it’s important to remain clear in our own thinking about the distinction between “admitting failure” and “learning from mistakes.” The first is essential a public relations activity – something that I think we’ll be increasingly constrained to do simply as a matter of remaining citizens in good standing of the aid community. In the current discussion on admitting aid failure, though, there is a strong tendency to tacitly associate those admissions of failure on the one hand, with follow-through corrective action on the other. But as we all know, admitting mistakes and changing practice based on what is learned from mistakes are not at all the same things. If admitting failure is to be more than an exercise in conspicuous organizational humility, it will be up to us to link acknowledgement of failure with positive change.

The right level of analysis. Right now I don’t see a lot of focus in the “admitting failure” discussion on what exactly we’re to admit failure of. As those of us who have actually implemented relief and development programs in the field know, the failure of an activity (say, food for work) does not mean the failure of a project or program within which the failed activity is but one part. Or, conversely, it is also possible for individual activities to succeed where the overall program fails. The failure of one program does not mean that the overall effort in-country has failed. Which is different yet from a failure of the overall aid system. We will need to educate our constituents (what I have called “The Third Audience” on this blog) to understand these differences, and what failure at one level or in one area means – and importantly, does not mean – in others.

The danger of hyperbole. In many respects I see the call for aid providers to “admit failure” as backlash against the hyperbolic “dude, we can so make poverty history” language of the marketing and promotional material coming out of NGO communications and PR departments. And, perhaps ironically, the language of the “admit failure” discussion is similarly hyperbolic. Looking through what Wayan Vota describes as the 10 Levels of Failure, it seems to me that we are very often drawn to describe as “catastrophic failure” or “abject failure” what might in fact be only “version failure.” Or what might actually be what I’d call “lukewarm success.” Very few relief or development programs fully succeed or fully fail. Moreover, as I’ve written, even experts very often disagree on what success and failure mean, on what has succeeded versus what has failed.

While I wouldn’t see the term “admit failure” going away any time soon (and so we’ll be stuck using it), I think that the success in admitting failure, whether as a means of educating our constituents or of our own organizational learning, will depend on how well we move past hyperbolic language of “success” as well as “failure” into nuanced discussion about how to make things better.

Move away from simplistic marketing and communications. I have repeatedly over the past twenty years had the exact same conversation with communications and marketing colleagues. The upshot is that basically, in their view, the public – our donors – don’t want a drawn-out, nuanced discussion. Rather, they want simple, cut-and-dried facts in sound bite form. I honestly do not see how this perspective can survive a climate where NGOs are forced, either by legal requirement or the courts of public opinion, to admit failure. This is related to the above point: the NGO and aid world will have no choice but to find new ways of reaching out to their donor bases. The overly simplistic, happy-happy, headline-style marketing that pervades the aid world right now barely works. Once it is common practice for us to admit failure, simplistic marketing messages will stop working altogether.

Ethics and practicality. Thomas Edison is reported to have made some 9,000 attempts before succeeding at inventing the electric light bulb. But how many times should aid practitioners be allowed to fail at this kind of program or that before getting it right? How badly should an NGO have to fail before being barred from future practice? For how long should the mediocre success of a particular intervention be tolerated before being labeled “failure” and disallowed? While on one hand I acknowledge the value of learning from mistakes and sincerely applaud organizations like Engineers Without Borders for their nascent leadership within the industry to admit failure as a necessary part of that, on the other hand I do struggle to balance this against the conviction that what we do affects the lives and livelihoods of real people in very immediate, tangible ways. It may be state of the art in fields like engineering to celebrate failed attempts as learning. But once again, we’re dealing with people’s lives, here: ultimately the emphasis has to be more on the learning, less on the simple act of admission. More to the point, we have to be getting this stuff right or abandoning particular practices long before try number 9,000.

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The 2nd Aid Blog Forum: Admitting Aid Failure?

Welcome to the Second Aid Blog Forum.

The topic for internet-wide discussion: Admitting Aid Failure?

I perceive a growing wave of sentiment in the general public that humanitarian relief and development agencies are, well, less than honest with their donors and constituents. Up to now that suspicion has been focused primarily on financial things: the disclosure of financial information such as the amount raised, the amount spent on a relief response over a certain period, aid worker salaries, etc. In the United States, at least, the primary requirements for qualification as a humanitarian or “charitable” organization have to do with financial things. As aid workers and as NGOs, we’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of scrutiny and compulsory disclosure of specifically financial information. And our in-house systems, policies and procedures reflect this reality.

Over the past two years particularly, however, I also sense that the general suspicion of aid workers and NGOs has grown to encompass a great deal more than just what we do with income from donors and how. There are increasing demands for us all to talk in meaningful, less simplistic and less universally rosy terms about what we accomplish. Increasingly we’re being asked to talk about our failures. There’s even an organization devoted to the concept of assertively admitting failure, named – as one might guess – Admitting Failure.

Admitting failure is a scary thing for NGOs and aid workers. It raises the possibility of loss of funding and livelihood. It raises the possibility of being misunderstood. And it raises the possibility of  deeper suspicion and more intense, uncomfortable scrutiny coming from an increasingly unsympathetic public.

On the other hand, few people inside the aid industry right now would argue categorically against being open and honest about anything less than success as a non-negotiable part of organizational and individual learning. Simply put, you can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t acknowledge – admit – your mistakes.

So, what do you think? What is or would be the value of aid agencies admitting failure? What about individual aid workers? What are the downsides? What would you decide if you were in charge and could make the decision what would be required, what would be strongly recommended, and what would be optional? Should there be some kind of regulation about how we talk about successes? What if results are just marginal, but not outright failure? Some kind of required balance between discussion of success versus failure in our publications? Should just any random taxpayer be able to walk in off the street and on demand see any document in (for US citizens) the HQ or field office of a 501(c)3 NGO? Where would you draw the lines between what international relief and development NGOs should be required to disclose, and what they can choose to keep in-house? Once it becomes common practice to admit failure, what then? Should there be a limit on how many times the same agency can fail at the same thing and/or in the same place before some kind of sanction happens? Once failure has been admitted, then what?

This Aid Blog Forum will work the same as the first one (read the Rules of Engagement). To participate, you simply:

  1. Write a post with your thoughts on admitting failure on your own blog.
  2. Come back here, click the dorky blue lizard, and follow the prompts.
  3. You’re done!

Simple

I completely agree with Morealtitude that The Mass Media commentary on the Horn of Africa is irretrievably beset with dumbassery. (Yes, and thank you very much BBC and CNN. We would have never thought to ponder “long-term solutions” without your prompting.)  And I am positively bored to the point of tears by yet another article banging on about how a “dysfunctional aid system” is the reason why things suck in The Horn. Seriously, AlertNet. You can do better. (By contrast, I love love LOVE the fact that in said article a bunch of UN and think-tank peeps, quoted as ‘experts’, decry the dysfunction of a bloated, donor-driven, bureaucracy. It’s a whole new spin on “working yourself out of a job.”)

But we’re losing the plot on the Horn of Africa. For once, I think it’s time to make this very simple: The Horn of Africa is in trouble. 

The Horn of Africa is in trouble, but not at all because the aid system is dysfunctional (the aid system is dysfunctional – this is not news). Even so, it’s a sobering day for the aid community. It’s a sobering day because everything True about the situation, about what’s involved in a humanitarian response, and what a long-term solution might possibly look like in The Horn goes directly against everything that we, the INGOs, have spent the past thirty years miseducating our donors and ourselves to believe.

Aid marketing I’d love to see, originally written as satire, applies literally here: Your $20 or $20,000,000 won’t end hunger. It is almost certain that at least part of your donation will help terrorists. And three years from now The Horn is still gonna suck. There’s no happy ending here, folks. At least not one that aid organizations can influence or ever take credit for.

Why?

Because despite everything we’ve deluded ourselves into believing about our own influence and relevance and capacity and skill, none – not a single one – of the root causes of the current Horn of Africa crisis are in any way within the capability of the aid system as we currently know it to even begin to fix. (And not just in The Horn, either – remember, Aid does not really fix anything.)

Linda Polman correctly points out that famines are almost never caused by lack of food. And that is absolutely true in the Horn of Africa right now. Sure, INGOs can scale up or go in if they weren’t there before and distribute food, do WASH, run some cross-border ops into different parts of Somalia, beef up services to the long-established “refugee” camps in places like Dadaab

But let’s be very clear: Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have the collective power and resources to end the famine tomorrow. Moreover, the only real solution is for Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia (at an absolute minimum) to get their acts together acts together both individually and regionally, and engage the political will to make the necessary changes.

Anyone care to hazard a guess as to when that is going to happen?

While of course all of the isms of the aid blogosphere apply to The Horn (no magik bullets, no quick solutions, it’s about the land, it’s all very complicated and expensive…) the bigger message, really, for us in The Horn – as well as far, far more other places than we’d care to admit – is that we can’t fix it. I wrote once that it’s Haiti’s job to fix Haiti. And I’ll say it again, here. It’s the job of The Horn to fix The Horn. And only The Horn can fix The Horn.

We’re not building resilience. We’re not putting in place durable long-term solutions. We’re not enhancing local capacity (seriously, the local NGO with hands-down the best operational capacity in the entire region is Al-Shabaab). We’re not engaging grassroots stakeholders in participatory dialogue about co-envisioned preferred futures.

Until The Horn decides that it wants to sort itself out, we’re doing cyclical, unsustainable, expensive relief aid. Because this is our only real option. Simple as that.