6 Mar

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.

* * *

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.

17 Responses to “#epicFail”

  1. Rebecca M.E. Pointer 7 March, 2011 at 1:29 am #

    I think it’s simply a question of striking a balance – and I think it is problematic if you can’t admit failures for fear of losing funding — after all, when things don’t work one often learns one helluva lot. I ran a small pilot project in Malawi that ran nothing like it was supposed to, to the point that I was teetering on giving up in despair. However, the project did ultimately lead to some AIDS orphans feeling better about themselves and winning kudos in their community, and even changed the life direction of some. It was the bumpiest ride I ever had with a project (and it was quite a cheap one in funding terms) but I think the impact on the children we worked with was immeasurable. However, we only worked with five children — is it a pass or fail?

    The reality is we are asked to provide impact evidence as if our projects are totally changing the world whereas I have yet to see a single project that results in the kind of massive restructuring needed if we’re really going to address the problems – so on that score every single project actually fails.

  2. Ian Thorpe 7 March, 2011 at 5:33 am #

    Another great blog post. You are spot on about the need to get fundraisers and communications people to understand prorammes better. You are also right about most programmes being neither complete successes or complete failures – but somewhere imbetween.

    A few words in favour of admitting failure and failfares.

    One manifestation of the comms-programme split – and perhaps of not for profit and public sector work in general is that we are under a lot of pressure to show that we are providing value for money which can lead us to overemphasize the positive and underemphasize the negative both in our external communication – but also in our internal communication with colleagues.

    But, our best learning about how to do things better often comes from things that didn’t work out as planned. Admitting failure and failfaire are attempts to recognize this and to make aid workers (and possibly donors) more willing to admit this, talk about it and learn from it.

    That said, for me, admitting failure is only any use if we do indeed learn from it – we shouldn’t revel in failure just for the sake of it And this also means that we can learn from the mistakes and failures that exist even within a successful programmes – ad maybe that’s an easier place for most people to start. But I do think being aware of our own failures and being willing to talk about them is a key step to improving aid.

    In terms of aid agencies being more transparent and sharing their project documents and evaluations on line – I think this is coming. The IATI phase 2 standards forsee this and this is open to INGOs (not only government donors and multilaterals). This will indeed be great progress as people will be able to see our successes and failures – but we will only learn from them if we are also willing to talk about them ourselves.

  3. c-sez 7 March, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    > 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.

    I agree that day is coming. But if we don’t get the subsidiary version of the IATI standard and mechanism put together and really aced, it will be super ripe for (a) cherry picking and misinterpretation, wilful and otherwise, as well as (b) being ignored by all the rest of the general public and their intermediaries in the media, who never saw a press release they didn’t prefer to actual data analysis and research.

    >> How in the world can we ever hope to educate our donors, if our own colleagues do not even really get it?

    On the weekend I was told about [government donor], who when [globally known NGO] told them about a fairly modest failure in one of their projects in [country x], have as a reward for their honest and transparent approach cut them off for the foreseeable for all future funding in [country x].

    As long as that is going on, and news about it spreads like wildfire on the grapevine, admitting failure might just stay a particular niche of carefully controlled hairshirt storytelling. IE… marketing. Rather than being a movement or meme that facilitates real internal and external cultural change and better feedback loops in the aid system as a whole.

  4. c-sez 7 March, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    There’s also the problem that government funding entails in all this (and its donor govt and multilateral funded progs I primarily deal with).

    Grossly oversimplifying: get things right 90% of the time working in the private sector and you are probably some kind of genius and the world will revere you.

    Admit to getting things wrong 1% of the time as a cabinet minister in any portfolio and the opposition will bay for blood and see it as an opportunity to destroy you.

    The political masters who ultimately fund a vast swathe of our work, do not want to hear about failure, or hear us openly discussing our failures, while they’re standing up in parliament or on the telly defending their own political skin.

  5. erinantcliffe 7 March, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    I agree with Ian that there’s no point in talking about failure unless we’re learning from it. The main point isn’t just to be honest with donors, the public, etc., but to learn (both internally and externally) about what works – and what doesn’t. Your post didn’t touch on this learning goal at all, but I think it’s the most important part!

    Agreed that you usually can’t classify a project as a complete failure or success, but, along the same vein as above, it’s useful to identify the elements of a project that were successes or failures so they can be replicated or avoided in the future.

    I understand that in some organizations it’s not so kosher to talk about this stuff publicly. I hope the push for openness will break down some of these barriers and allow employees to elaborate upon the data with their stories of success and failure.

  6. Jane 7 March, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    Lots of great points J. I am particularly interested in the disconnect between marketing and programs and how this results in the general public getting the wrong impression of what good aid is. I think as long as organizations separate these groups into silos (with little effective interaction) this problem will not be resolved. This is typical in many industries- where marketing does not truly understand what the “experts” in that industry do. It is frustrating for those within the organization, it can often limit good work, and the general public never gets a good understanding of what the organization does. The bottom line is that donors are becoming more involved in affecting the work organizations do, not less. So until we start to properly educate the general public on good aid, it is likely little will change.

  7. AdmittingFailure 7 March, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Great blog post and comments.

    I agree there is a lot of buzz right now around talking about aid failures but I think there could be real longevity in the issue because what we are really talking about is improving the effectiveness of the aid delivered. This means, as Erin mentioned, replicating successes and recognizing and learning from mistakes but it also means getting creative, trying new approaches and taking some calculated risks in the interest of innovation.

    Understandably, aid agencies and donors tend to insist on value for money and clear evidence of results. However, such constraints create a risk-adverse environment in the sector where failure is rarely tolerated, and the learning and innovation that come along with taking calculated risks and learning from failure is restricted.
    The growing interest in discussing development failures is exciting because it demonstrates a shift the perception of failure from something negative to something that is indicative of an organisational culture that supports and fosters new ideas.

    That long-held belief that admitting failure will result in loss of funds is being challenged and in its place we see a budding belief that trust and credibility can be built between the various levels in the sector, and with the public, by showing that failures are being recognised and the resulting lesson learned are extracted, shared and incorporated into future operations.

    On that note, I will jump on the bandwagon started by Ian and stress that admitting failure is only a starting point. AdmittingFailure.com and similar initiatives provide a place to embrace failure and share lessons learned – which is an important first step but to be truly valuable, the learning needs to be integrated into the organisation and used to inform operations and implementation. But if enough people in the sector are behind this trend, I can see this buzz around failure turning into a culture shift within development organisations, and the sector in general, that consistently values honesty and learning, risk and innovation.

    And if I’m wrong? Sadly I guess that means I will have to submit a failure about AdmittingFailure.com to AdmittingFailure.com.

    • c-sez 7 March, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

      “That long-held belief that admitting failure will result in loss of funds is being challenged.”

      Well it hasn’t necessarily percolated out to everyone out near where I’m sitting, AF. Not yet. I think to achieve lift off you need a donor agency (CIDA maybe?), a UN, and maybe a dozen foundations signed up as ‘friends of failure’ on your site and maybe admitting some of their own.

  8. Mindy Mizell 7 March, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    Brilliant, J. Educate me.

  9. angelica 9 March, 2011 at 4:03 pm #

    I was going to say that thins links to @ithorpe’s last blog post, and to something I am pretty sure I have mentioned before, how everything needs to be more integrated, as in human resources please! how can they hire the adequate candidate if they don’t fully understand the job… not their fault, it’s a system failure (very well represented in thorpe’s video)

  10. Laura 9 March, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    I think that NGO aid programs should and will become more transparent. Transparency of the programs could not only help give awareness of how the outcomes are, but also about how the programs work in general. This information could help individuals, especially outsiders; learn more about how aid really works. I think that a lot of the beliefs about aid programs failing come from the aspect that many people don’t truly understand what is going on with them. It’s true that everyone defines failure differently. To me, if one life is saved or bettered, than the program has not failed. It may not have had the large impact it planned for, but it still made a difference by helping even that one life. If individuals better understood aid and how it works, as well as the current situations the aid programs are addressing, I think more people would see them as succeeding, even if it were a very small and slow success.

  11. melissa 10 March, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    I completely agree that criticizing aid organizations is a total catch-22. Every bit of aid that helps improve the quality of life for even a single person matters and is important and any aid organization that helps anyone is in some way a success. But the necessity of more transparency, any transparency within and without these organizations is important, too. I guess my biggest issue is that the amount of available aid and the size of success are completely disproportionate. I think another problem is, is that a lot of aid donors give money and as soon as it is out of sight it is out of mind. Perhaps if aid were treated more like an investment in which there was more accountability for a successful outcome the money would go further than it does.

  12. Joe Turner 11 March, 2011 at 1:19 am #

    Possibly a very dumb question – but how do you measure the effectiveness of being transparent? Doesn’t it cost time effort and money? Couldn’t that money be better spent in some other way?

    It seems to me that we’re highly likely to get to a situation whereby effectiveness is measured by the ability to produce a lengthy transparent fully considered report – particularly, if as mentioned above, we want failure to be part of the ordinary run-of-things rather than something to be frightened of.

  13. Marc 11 March, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    Interesting post and commentary. Three thoughts. First, the more donors insist on the KPI-ification of aid the less aid will respond to the needs of people, which would be one way of defining failure. To create lasting qualitative improvement in aid, the governments and people in recipient communities need to judge whether it is failing. (Easier said than done). Second, forget about the aid industry cleaning itself up. There’s no incentive. Soon, lawyers will do that, as bad aid programmes will increasingly result in “victims” using litigation to seek money. Finally, speaking of “aid” blurs the fundamental distinction between humanitarian assistance and development aid. Fine to say that the former helped individuals and is therefore not a failure — its goal is not to transform socieities. But development aid sells itself on addressing root causes, on ending poverty rather than providing livelihoods for a few people, and yet it tends to defend itself by pointing to individual success stories. That’s the source of the charges of failure.


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