I’m intrigued by what feels like a recent upsurge in calls for aid organizations, aid providers to admit failure. Two very quick examples (there are many others): Daniela Papi calling for NGOs to show her their failures; and a whole organization Admit Failure (@admitfailure), dedicated specifically to – you guessed it – admitting failure.
The overall tenor of these calls for aid organizations to admit failure seems to imply that, in fact, aid organizations have something to hide, that they’ve been dishonest, that they’re trying to somehow dress up botched programming as success. And fair enough: whether organizationally or personally, we’re as self-interested as anyone else.
I get it. Aid failure is the trendy issue du jour in the aid-watching world. But I think that before NGOs admitting failure becomes the trendy PR scheme du jour, it’s important to remember a couple of things about aid failure:
Not everyone agrees on what failure is. I and others have written before about the great divide between marketing and programs in NGOs. And it is hard to overstate the importance of that divide when it comes to understanding the differences between what NGOs typically tell the public and what they actually do. As @shotgunshack put it (in reference to the World Vision 100k T-shirts controversy):
“People forget that the gap between program and fundraising teams is huge and very contentious. I bet some people are secretly cracking up (over secretly consumed alcohol) at all the blogger heat World Vision USA’s marketing and PR teams are probably under for those 100,000 loser shirts. And secretly dreading the shaming they will face at the next INGO meeting with their program peers.”
It’s safe to assume that for every questionable aid program an NGO touts on it’s website which incurs a blogosphere dogpile, there is a wide range of internal opinion – not publicly expressed. I don’t just mean between marketing and programs, but within programs, too. There is often wide divergence of opinion about what works and what doesn’t among practitioners. NGOs are rarely unified internally (and I say “rarely” in order to give the benefit of the doubt, although I’ve never met one that was internally unified). And so whether NGO A is publicly admitting failure or publicly claiming credit for having made the world a better place, either way you can assume there are people working there who feel that the real truth is, in fact, the opposite.
Most aid programs are neither full successes nor total failures. This one is equally difficult for critics and cheerleaders alike. Despite many, many PR and advertising campaigns which convey the message that “your donation changes a life”, the reality is that most of the time aid gains are incremental: reducing malnutrition or improving maternal mortality rates in district X by a few per cent over a number of years. And while those kinds of gains are incredibly important, they represent slow, visually almost imperceptible change to the outsider. To the untrained eye, a village with a U5MR of 15% does not look that much different from one in the next province where five years of Child Survival have lowered the U5MR down to 9%.
And by the same token, very few of those programs that get slammed on the aid pundit blogsites can truly be linked to measurable harm. Sure, there are those famously harmful, spectacular aid failures that everyone knows about. The whole mess than ensued following the Rwanda genocides, for example. But my honest opinion is that more often than not those programs we all like to rant about – all the BOGO, GIK “win-win”, celebrity aid worker, church volunteer groups, shoe-and-bra-collecting, losers-without-borders dumbassery – are just lame, inefficient, distractions. More often than not, the real harm they cause is simply that they perpetuate incorrect thinking about poverty and the remedies to it, rather than that they directly contribute to some kind of local system failure.
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I’m not going to try to defend NGOs.
We do need to be more transparent in general and open about the non-uniform and too-often marginal success of our programs specifically. We can do far better than we do. And while what we do does matter, it is also a reality that most of the time what we actually accomplish is far more bland than what our glossy propaganda makes it all out to be.
On the other hand, I’m also not going to go totally cynical (for a change) and make it seem like it’s all bottom-line driven, money-grubbing marketing. Although there’s certainly some evidence to support that perspective, too, most of the marketers who I know and work with personally are (I believe) honest people who genuinely want to be part of making the world better. Unfortunately they mostly do not really understand in any real depth the product that they’re selling. They don’t know what they don’t know.
And to me, that is the real failure. How in the world can we ever hope to educate our donors (as Saundra is so valiantly trying to do), if our own colleagues do not even really get it?
Those of us who know programs and who implement stuff in the field need to share what we know with our colleagues in marketing, comms, and PR – colleagues who, in many, many instances are eager to learn and are even more excited by the reality of what we do than they were at their previous beliefs in the happy propaganda (and why wouldn’t they be? Good aid, properly implemented, makes good sense and, more importantly, works).
I believe the day is coming when it will be standard practice for NGOs to publish unedited program evaluation and financial data on their websites, open for review by anyone who might be interested. Ms. Papi along with everyone else will see our failures, as well as our success, and everything else in between laid out in plain text and numerical data with a few mouse clicks. But if we don’t get our own non-practitioner colleagues on the same good aid page as us, if they don’t understand what we do and why so that they can represent that on to Our constituents, we will be in for a world of hurt…
That would be an #epicFail.