Seeking success, finding failures: work in development

In a very recent conversation, someone asked me what concrete evidence of success we (IRC) had in our work and I came to think that, in spite of the best intentions and sometimes a certain arrogance of development organisations about their achievements, concrete success is still very difficult to qualify and find in the WASH sector and in the development world at large.

When trying to point to the most effective evidence, I usually come to a series of very tiny improvements: people… sharing some ideas and information, realising the value of cooperation, developing the start of a common vision, engaging in joint research or joint implementation, investing in issues that they hadn’t considered important until then, organising awareness-raising events etc. We are far from a systemic change.

Now what does this say about our approach(es)?

Are we indeed looking at the right objectives? Do we have the right expectations? Are we using the right metrics to assess whether our approach makes sense and contributes to a better situation or not? Who should we convince about changing expectations and getting more realistic? Are we right to be obsessed with our shabby patchwork of success stories when we have a long standing history of failures to learn from, and some thinkers have already pointed to the value of learning from failures?

If I look at these questions and my own experience with them, I would say:

1)      Are we focusing on the right objectives? By and large we are not. Expecting drastic change such as improving governance in a country, sorting out e.g. health, urban water management, rural sanitation in a project’s lifetime is not realistic – and that is yet aside from the bias of over-resource endowment and over-availability of capacity in the project (which makes any success difficult to replicate or get inspiration from later anyway). Small is beautiful: no plant starts from gargantuan proportions, they grow shyly but surely.

2)      Do we have the right expectations? No we don’t! Starting from the point that development work is all about empowerment (power and capacity to affect one’s own present and future path), we are talking about shifting power relations, helping to develop one’s own development vision and one’s own development capacity. This is all about behaviour change and behaviour change takes a very slow route, perhaps a generation’s time to affect society;

3)      Are we using the right metrics to assess if our approach makes sense? Judging from recent reads about monitoring of knowledge management approaches (upcoming IKM Emergent paper), I don’t think so, even though some efforts are currently undertaken to try and start from the premise that the world is complex and simple metrics cannot grasp the full picture of behavioural changes – and for that matter, that metrics themselves may not always be the most adequate way to assess change, as the current narrative monitoring trend shows.

4)      Who do we have to convince about changing those expectations? This concerns us all: practitioners focusing on doing doing doing without do-cumenting and analysing (see an earlier post on this); donors pulling the financial strings of development work and imposing sometimes conflicting logical frameworks and reporting requirements to assess if we can achieve a pre-set vision that may not work, that may not even be appropriate or demanded and whose results are likely to return to dust a couple of years after the end of the project; researchers, who are so good at identifying bottlenecks and issues for improvement but are not always really grounded in the reality where they set their research projects. Development is slow, because it is about behaviour change and because the behaviour of ‘recipients’ is very different to the behaviour of the (particularly Northern) development cooperation community, so it takes a while to come to understanding each other, let alone achieving change together. But anyway it is the local pace that matters, the local vision that should drive development, the local capacity that should start the works, the local understanding that should conceptualise approaches. And there we are failing rather miserably… but there is some light in there…

Learning from failures: when another break in the wall becomes another brick in the wall
Learning from failures: when another break in the wall becomes another brick in the wall

5)      When it comes to obsessing with success, yes and no. Success is the right vision, but success stories are perhaps not the right path to follow. Dave Snowden already wrote quite a bit about the importance of learning from failures – including his recent update of his principles of rendering knowledge and a specific focus here on this principle: ‘Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success’. He is not the only one: see and a host of blog posts about this topic, as different as, or – all coming from a recent Googling). And all these authors have many points there but I’d like to insist on a few:

it is much easier to identify what didn’t go well and what particular factor triggered a negative spiral than to identify what did go well (because that is the result of a combination of factors); success tends to quench the thirst for learning (hence the expressions ‘resting on one’s laurels’ or in Dutch the ‘wet van de remmende voorsprong’ or handicap of the headstart); failure is an opportunity to do things differently and it thereby invites innovation; and finally, success tends to divide and failure tends to unite energies, and if development work needs anything, it’s uniting energies…

So all in all let’s keep focusing on the road to success based on a positive vision of the future, but let’s also focus on the reasons behind our failures, in all honesty, because what can unite us is not blaming whoever failed but finding out how to get it right next and relentlessly learning to get to increasingly right questions. In this respect, another break in the wall becomes another brick in the wall – and I just notice how peculiar it is to blog about walls from Berlin…

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Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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