Monday
January 31
2011

Heather Esper

Improving Development, One Failure at a Time

Reinventing the wheel. It’s frustrating. It wastes precious resources. And unfortunately, it happens a lot in the development community – especially in the field.

I know I’m not alone in starting a new project wondering: why no one else has done it yet? But, the truth often is that it has, in fact, been done or attempted before in one way or another, but was abandoned along with any lessons learned. The development community needs to learn to better manage failure and stop sweeping it under the rug. Not learning from failure is a great disservice to those we seek to serve.

On Jan. 14, Engineers Without Borders Canada, with Ian Smillie and Scott Gilmore of Peace Dividend Trust, launched a new website to challenge development organizations worldwide. The website, admittingfailure.com, is a platform for individuals to submit mistakes or failures they’ve encountered in their work. The idea behind the website is to recognize mistakes and failures, and to learn from them. The more people who post, the more lessons readers will learn.

One of the main goals of the website is to inform the public, the masses who provide usually small amounts of funding for many socially oriented organizations, on what their money is doing. It aims to give these donors an idea of what actually happens on the ground, including the types of failures occurring across the field. If done well, this website could be a great step in introducing the average public donor to a level of transparency and accountability.


The website is taking donors well beyond the annual, holiday-season materials they receive – plastered with stories of success – and interspersed with requests for more financial assistance. This website does a great service in showing donors how complicated development work actually is and that mistakes are inevitable. Who knows? Maybe more people will join the development community if they realize that there isn’t a silver bullet to end poverty. Is it such a bad thing if more people join us on our sleepless nights? Hopefully the website also will help donors realize they have a role to play in ensuring that the organizations receiving their support learn from their mistakes. What do you think about the public more closely monitoring how their money is used, and holding the organizations they donate to accountable for specific types of metrics? Lets hope larger donor agencies are also paying attention, and that they begin to recognize failure differently.

I challenge you to choose one of the many failures you’ve encountered while working in development (whether minute or large, either solely your responsibility or due to a larger bureaucratic structure) and contribute it to the admitting failures site by the end of the week. Let this be a much needed step toward working together across organizations by sharing learnings so we can better serve the BoP.

Note: Engineering Without Borders Canada has also published a report on its failures, which Madeline Bunting covers in a recent article published in The Guardian. And I second her when she says “A more grown-up conversation about NGOs and their work is overdue.”

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