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.