It is often difficult to admit one’s mistakes, especially in the field of international cooperation, where there is a high level of accountability and the focus is continuously on the sustainability of actions. The consequence? Little or no capitalization on failures, which tend to repeat themselves as projects continue to be implemented. Let’s break this taboo in order to enhance the effectiveness of actors and the overall quality of development projects!

© Joseph Guiard for "Projection" network
© Joseph Guiard for "Projection" network

Failure: What’s that?

Which development professional, all sectors taken together, has not heard or confided that their program has been a “real failure”? Indeed, a number of development projects experience difficulties, or even fail, during their implementation. Interculturality, a poor assessment of needs, the rigidity of project frameworks, inappropriate human resources, the non-involvement of local authorities: there are a whole host of sources of error.

But how can the failure of a development project be defined? It is a complex issue! Some will say that failure occurs when the objectives set out in the logical framework are not achieved. Others will speak about the fact that failure is not inevitable and of the need to reassess objectives during the project life, especially in contexts where the impacts are not immediately visible. For example, in the field of basic sanitation, the initial objectives of building latrines may be achieved and evaluated positively at project completion, but an evaluation of their use by the beneficiaries can show that in reality they are not used because they have been poorly designed, or because the community support has been neglected. It is therefore possible to understand this simple development action as both a technical success and a failure in terms of changing behavior.

The perception of failure is even more subjective because it varies over time: a project rarely achieves all its initial objectives, just as it is unlikely that a project will completely fail. This is why it is now essential to launch a debate on the many sources of error in conducting a development project.


Break an unproductive taboo

In certain areas, entrepreneurship for example, it is common to speak about the mistakes one has made in order to avoid repeating them. For example, during the “fail fairs” developed in the USA and UK, failures are used as individual and collective learning sources.

Conversely, the development sector, especially in the French-speaking community, is far from being very at ease, due to the accountability towards donors and taxpayers, the need to maintain one’s credibility with local partners, and the increased emphasis on the need to develop sustainable and reproducible actions. International cooperation is indeed a “market” for development actors, who must not overlook the fact that their know-how and expertise, in other words their “capacity to succeed”, will be “sold” tomorrow to other donors in order to continue to develop projects.

In a context of economic slowdown and an increasing difficulty to finance development programs, cooperation actors may consequently be tempted by a certain degree of conservatism and keep quiet about their own mistakes. Yet it is obvious that failure, if it is analyzed in a constructive manner, can be a valuable learning source for organizations.


Projection network at the forefront

True to its founding slogan, “Speaking Bluntly to the Point”, the Projection network has taken up this subject and conducted a survey of professionals in the field of access to essential services in the South. It has met with an enthusiasm which shows a desire in the community to address failures in a more direct and uninhibited manner in the sector. Three main categories of error and obstacles have been identified:

  • Methodological errors, which include failures due to a poor analysis of the needs of local populations, a poor definition of the initial objectives, or an overly complex or poorly prepared logical framework;
  • Structural errors, due to the weight and rigidity of institutions which have standardized criteria and objectives, and constraints in terms of time, financing and reporting. If the criteria and objectives are standardized, not complying with them automatically means that the project has failed;
  • Finally, relational errors concern difficulties of communication or organization with partners and/or the non-involvement of project beneficiaries.


Play down, capitalize, and communicate on failure

Strong actions are today required in order to break the taboo over failure and consider it in a constructive manner. The Projection network has identified several possible areas of work for development actors:

  • Share “good practices”, but also the bad ones! It is crucial to go beyond the politically correct “lessons learned” and other “good practices” traditionally identified at project completion in order to acknowledge failure and communicate better. For example, the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada group has launched the “Admitting Failure” platform to share on failure. Its aim is to help organizations discuss failure and show those who want to talk about it that they are not alone. This type of initiative must be encouraged and there needs to be a greater freedom of speech on the issue;
  • Promote dialogue and flexibility in projects in order to acknowledge errors. All the actors involved in the same project (elected officials, technicians, donors, beneficiaries, etc.) do not necessarily share the same vision of the project cycle, objectives, or expected outcomes. It is important for stakeholders to be able to establish an uninhibited framework for exchanges throughout the project cycle in order to be in a position to discuss the sticking points, define strategies to minimize them, and possibly redefine approaches in the course of the project;
  • Give more importance and means to evaluation. Evaluation must be a critical moment in identifying the successes and failures of projects. While most donors today impose a mid-term or final evaluation, more freedom of speech must be given to the organizations in charge of implementing projects during these exercises. There is a risk of evaluations becoming routine exercises that no longer contribute to improving development projects;
  • Use failure to start afresh and innovate. It is necessary to step back from policy frameworks that are often too rigid in order to innovate. In this respect, it would be worthwhile encouraging pilot projects, which are admittedly sometimes more risky, but their flexibility makes it possible to test promising subjects and identify both needs and shortcomings. In this sense, sharing experiences on errors that have been made and open communication on failure will promote flexibility and creativity in project design and implementation, and will potentially allow development models to be renewed.

The challenge today: make development actors less inhibited without relieving them of their responsibilities and consider that a well-identified bad practice can be a source of innovations for both their own organization and for others. Is the development community ready to break the taboo of failure?


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