In honour of World Humanitarian Day, the WhyDev team wants to recognize an unfortunate truth: humanitarian projects often fail. We believe NGOs need to confront their mistakes, talk about them and learn from them – it’s the only way aid will get better.
By Ravinder Casley Gera
Every year, development and aid projects fail. Whether they are run by donors, NGOs, government agencies or a combination, some projects will fail. Maybe not spectacularly – it may just be that they don’t accomplish all their intended outcomes or achieve the expected impacts. This is inevitable. With complex interventions, too much can go wrong for failures not to happen sometimes.
Donors are getting better at acknowledging such failures. But to listen to many NGOs, you’d think no intervention ever fell short of its intended aims. Outputs – be they schools, medicines, agricultural training or whatever – are lovingly documented, photos taken, quotes obtained. But what about the interventions that don’t go according to plan, or that begin to unravel as soon as the NGO running it departs?
It’s not like NGOs are unaware of their failures. Monitoring and evaluation departments are becoming commonplace within large NGOs. But when it comes to talking about failure to external audiences, there’s resistance.
It’s not surprising: organizations dependent on public donations are hardly going to want to put out the message that money is going to waste. But, as Engineers without Borders founder David Damberger pointed out in a great TED talk in 2011, NGOs that report their failures are more likely to learn from them, and doing so helps prevent others from wasting time and resources making the same mistakes.
So if you’ve sunk resources into a project that hasn’t produced results, what do you say to your supporters?
Here’s my (entirely fictional) take on how NGOs could clearly, but unapologetically, talk about an unsuccessful project.
At Partners Fighting Poverty, we never stop thinking about new ways to help the world’s most vulnerable farmers. Every year we try new approaches and new projects to help people earn more, learn more and live healthier, safer lives. This innovative approach has led us to some of our biggest successes, such as our unique plough-to-plate value chain financing system.
But when you try a lot of new things, inevitably some will work better than others. And a small number of projects won’t work at all.
I want to take a moment today to tell you about one recent project that didn’t work.
Our cassava program in Eastern Uganda built on the success of our previous farming support projects. In five villages, we helped farmers access seeds and training to grow and sell cassava, a nutritious local crop.
We spent around $100,000 on this five-village pilot project. I know that sounds like a lot. But pilots are expensive, because they mean designing the intervention, obtaining suppliers, doing surveys and so on, to lay the groundwork. That takes time, and staff time costs money. When a pilot is successful, you can ‘scale up’ a project, and the cost goes way down.
But on this occasion – as with one or two pilots every few years – the pilot was unsuccessful. We underestimated the sheer costs of transporting cassava from these remote villages to market. It’s a six-hour journey on bad roads from the villages to the main market town, and farmers didn’t have cheap enough access to transportation to make a decent profit. Of the 500 farmers we trained, only around 70 started growing cassava for the market, though lots more did grow a little for consumption at home. Those 70 farmers who sold their cassava found that they did make a small profit, but it was much less than anticipated.
Overall, we estimate we increased farmers’ incomes by an average of $40 last year. That’s not much considering $100,000 works out to $200 per farmer.
We know that we couldn’t do the work we do without the support of people like you, and we’re grateful. And I hate to ever have to tell you that your money wasn’t well spent. But even though this project wasn’t a success, we learned some valuable lessons. We learned to do more thorough research into local market conditions, and to have more detailed discussions with farmers about what sort of return they expect when they put time and energy into growing a new crop. We’re now reviewing our plans for new initiatives supporting smallholder farmers in East Africa, to ensure we’ve learned the lessons of this experience and achieve better outcomes next time.
This kind of failure doesn’t happen to us often, I’m proud to say. More than two-thirds of our pilot projects achieve more than half of their goals. But failure does happen. And we believe it’s better to be open about it.
I’m so, so grateful for your support. In my next newsletter, I’ll tell you about one of our pilot projects that’s proven a great success – training women in Zanzibar to farm seaweed.
Thanks for reading,
Janet van Susskind
CEO, Partners Against Poverty
Featured image is Cain, by Henry Vidal. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
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