Friday 9 September 2016

The Failure Debate: Cold Shower Time

Failure is a sexy theme at the moment. How to adapt and iterate to it is the latest development Holy Grail. But rather like a religious text the conclusions people draw from the debate tend to depend on their own standpoint, interests and perspectives. A thoughtful blogpost by DFID thinker Pete Vowles illustrates this point. As a donor he wrestles with the idea that failure is inevitable and useful if it can be captured for learning and adaptation, while wondering at how to make it ‘OK to fail’ for those implementing projects.

Pete makes a number of useful observations. He highlights, for example, the constant waves of new donor metrics, clouding one’s ability to judge progress from one to the next. He cites the lack of space for donors to really listen to local communities enough. And the implicit pressure to avoid any kind of failure, for fear of undermining wider aid efforts by handing ammunition to skeptics. There’s no easy answer to any of those when you consider the political economy donors and practitioners inhabit.

Yet some of the points Pete makes I think could be helped along by a cold shower reality check followed by some political thinking.

Time, cost & quality 

Pete posits one useful way of understanding failure is to adopt three lenses of time, cost and quality. But then leaves that hanging without returning to it anywhere else in his blog. This sounds eerily like the magnificent sounding “3 E”’s that were unveiled excitedly by DFID bods some years ago. We were told that Efficiency, Economy and Effectiveness would be the yardstick of judging Value for Money, but that was never really defined either.

I recently read a DFID call for proposals that very clearly judged VFM not on any of the “E”s but squarely on what percentage their implementing partner would charge them in overheads. And not much else. We clearly need a framework for judging value for money. We don’t yet have one beyond buzzwords that are ill-understood and applied inconsistently. And that’s a problem for adapting and iterating to failure using public funds that are rightly under scrutiny.

Safe to fail? 

Pete states that donors need to make it ‘safe’ for implementers to own up to, highlight and learn from failure. That is absolutely correct. But if Pete doesn’t mind me saying so, he is whistling in the wind.

The brutal reality is that there is a massive power imbalance which it is naïve to pretend doesn’t exist. Donor agencies have plenty. Sometimes more than their host Governments. Implementers, be they community based organisations, activist networks, NGOs or INGOs have absolutely none. There is a sliding scale of ‘none’ with local CBOs at the bottom, as INGOs can lobby. But it’s still basically none. Take a look at how DFID is destroying some UK based INGOs at the moment by repeatedly missing its own deadlines and commitments to re-invest in a PPA agreement. It’s already too late for some of them. Consider how that has impacted in turn on the local partners with whom those INGOs work, who rely on flexible funding to experiment, try new ways of working and to do the things Pete says he wants to see more of. It’s already too late for some of them too.

Institutional self-awareness is not easily created, but for all the woolly talk of “partnership” by donors it will always be a patron-client relationship. So if donors are serious then they need to start placing a hard financial value on learning in project design that goes way beyond standardised approaches to M&E or disjointed ‘learning components’ that often look like a bolt-on. We need consistent investment in projects that incentivise learning and adaptation at the core, recognising the value of both. Time to stop talking and start doing.

Be an aid skeptic 

Pete comes to the right conclusions in many respects. His points about listening to local people being the most pertinent among them in my view. So long as listening is accompanied by a preparedness to change course. But I couldn’t let his final flourish go without comment. He urges the reader to “think like an aid skeptic” in order to understand how this might all appear externally and to be self-critical. He later states:
“After all, the task of poverty reduction is one of the most challenging there is.”
The problem with this is twofold. Firstly there is an implicit assumption that his readers are not skeptics. I am. In fact most of the people I consider to be doing the most innovative thinking on adaptive programming are also wizened old skeptics. We should all be skeptics in my view, all the time. That, surely, is a pre-requisite to recognising when things go wrong, and to avoid the overly optimistic theories of change that often lead to mistakes being repeated, frequently by donors themselves, while limiting a tendency to overstate the actual impact of our efforts on people’s lives. It would also help with reducing hype-cycles that lead to ever shifting metrics and priorities. 

Secondly, and linked to the first, should we perhaps drop the pretence that development is about poverty? What does that mean anyway? $1.25 a day, or freedom of expression? Going back to Pete’s point about listening to local communities I doubt very much they would all frame their challenges in that way.

Citizens in Turkana. Voice, not poverty alleviation

Development is politics

When I met these communities in Turkana, who score highly on any poverty index, they didn’t talk about ‘poverty’. They talked about power. And how they didn’t have a voice, as one teacher put it, because there was no local strongman fighting their corner. They wanted to be treated justly, to have a voice and to build a better world for their children. How do we judge the relative contribution our efforts might be making to them? Or to these open government activists in South Africa trying to realise Mandela's vision of liberty amid rampant elite corruption?

And to readers who have never met her before allow me to introduce a young woman who to me personified the chasm that lies between the aid industry and the international initiatives which become their world - and the reality of what the world actually looks like to ordinary people. In my view Amina from Dar es Salaam should be asked to write every donor agency's strategy with immediate effect. Is she poor? Absolutely. Would she describe herself and her ambitions in that way? Not a chance.

Development is politics, whether we like it or not. So how we ultimately judge success or failure surely needs to go way beyond a projectised approach to business as usual development in the short term and take a much, much more holistic and long term view of how our aggregate efforts are having an impact overall. Otherwise it might add up to a row of nicely arranged beans in the end.

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