The 2nd Aid Blog Forum: Admitting Aid Failure?

14 Oct

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!

28 Responses to “The 2nd Aid Blog Forum: Admitting Aid Failure?”

  1. Marc F. Bellemare 14 October, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    Thanks for picking up this topic, J. I’m curious to see what other people have to say.

  2. Wayan 16 October, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Might this have anything to do with our recent One lesson I learned from it is the need to speak in terms of the positive: failure as a mark of leadership and innovation in pushing our industry to scale better.

    • J. 16 October, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

      It’s a coincidence, Wayan, albeit a happy one.

      It would be awesome to have a full post from you in the mix…🙂

  3. Stef Smits 18 October, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    One of the nicest failure reports i have come across is the one by Engineers Without Borders with their honest reporting on failures and the lessons obtainted from this

  4. Timo Luege 23 October, 2011 at 6:08 am #

    What’s the deadline? I’m failing as we speak and would like to share the whole story …

    • J. 23 October, 2011 at 8:44 am #

      check the collection (click the blue lizard). should give you the number of hours left before the collection closes🙂


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