Haiti revisited – are we failing to understand failure?

A short conversation between Weh, Brendan and you

Weh: It’s a year since disaster in Haiti struck, which means that it’s almost a year since we wrote about the relief efforts in Haiti in this post. Looking back on that original post, I can’t say that I am surprised the recovery process has been widely criticised since then. I don’t think there is any need to repeat what has already been said so well on many other aid and development blogs. For an excellent collection of posts on the Haiti recovery effort, check out Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s list on Good Intentions Are Not Enough here.

I can’t claim to have read every article in there, but the overwhelming consensus seems to be that not enough has happened in Haiti in the year that has passed since the earthquake. That the recovery has been slow and ineffective. That many people are still living in tent cities a year on. That donors have been ineffective – out of the $5.2 billion pledged, only $1.6 billion has been delivered. And there are questions as to whether the amount pledged is going to be enough anyway.

There is a highly passionate (and frustrated) post over at ActionAid criticising the Haitian government for not prioritising land tenures. You can sense CEO of ActionAid Archie Law’s immense frustration when he writes that he won’t be celebrating Haiti’s amazing progress, as “nothing could be further from the truth.” In response, David Week at Architecture for Development wrote a highly thought-provoking post countering the criticism of the government. I won’t repeat what David wrote, as he is far better qualified to write on the topic himself, but it’s worth a read. One statistic worth noting that the “standard” time frame for reconstruction post disaster is as follows:

  1. Rescue: 7 days
  2. Relief: three months
  3. Recovery: five years.

Note the five years.

Following on from a very astute comment on Tales from the Hood here, one has to wonder what our expectations for recovery were. In my original post I briefly detailed how dire the situation in Haiti was before the earthquake, and how unfit the government was to face up to a disaster of this scale. It has been well established that in order to ensure accountability, reforming and strengthening public institutions is vital. Yet, considering the lack of consultation and the fact that the bulk of decision-making occurred outside Haiti, should we be surprised that the Préval government is not able to adequately deal with all the problems at hand? And therefore, is it correct for ActionAid to criticise the Préval for not “doing better“, or should the blame lie at the feet of the organisations who have wrested control away from the state?

Or, as Simon Moss of the Global Poverty Project notes here, are we simply being impatient?

Brendan:  We are possibly being impatient, but perhaps more so, we are failing to understand and engage in the taboo of ‘failure’. I know @ShotgunShack has expressed recent concern that ‘failure’ may become another buzzword. However, there is value in sitting down and trying to understand how this notion plays out in all facets of development, particularly disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.

On 14th January, Engineers Without Borders launched what is being hailed as a ‘wonderful’ and ‘courageous’ new site dedicated to exploring and learning from failure. Word of this site spread fast across blogs, Twitter and news sites, asking the cute question: “So are we ready for a grown-up conversation about what NGOs do?”

Well, no. If we are to have a conversation about failure, then we need to first understand its cultural and social roots. Namely, our educational and possibly family/social upbringing. Although failure is a necessary and unavoidable feature of every one’s life, it is not an acceptable part of our education. It would be cliche at this point to quote from well-known person about learning from failure. Don’t worry, I am not going to. That success comes from failure is axiomatic, but not automatic. Our schooling does not allow iterations. You are either right or wrong, a success or a failure. There are progressive educational trends against, but mainstream education systems demand adherence to the cult of Success. To test scores. To numbers that determine whether you fail or succeed. This then carries across into our personal, social and professional lives. Into our relationships. Into aid and development (sorry, not a very clean jump back onto the topic). Donors, like parents, teachers, employers, do not want to know or speak of failure.

Failure is an unavoidable condition, risk and inherent part of disaster relief, reconstruction and development. It is not distinguishable from success, but one and the same. Success will not be achieved as soon as food aid arrives, temporary shelters are made available, medical treatment given, money is pledged or reconstruction begins. There will be many failures and success depends on our capacity to accept such in the knowledge that it will enable success.

Post-script

See Tom Murphy’s much more insightful article about moving beyond blame, admitting failure and accepting realities in Haiti

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Weh Yeoh

Weh is a disability development worker currently based in Cambodia. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of NSW. He has a diverse background, having spent years travelling through remote parts of Asia, volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interning in India, and studying Mandarin in Beijing. He has experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and internationally in China, through Handicap International. He is an obsessed barefoot runner, wearer of Lycra, and eats far too much for his body size. You can view his LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/wmyeoh) and follow him on Twitter @wmyeoh.

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4 thoughts on “Haiti revisited – are we failing to understand failure?”

  1. I think Brendan does a good job explaining why admitting failure is important while stating that it is not a cure-all. To me, this comes down to sharing and transparency. If NGOs and governments can admit what has been working we would be in a much better place. One major criticism of the call for research when it comes to development is that it is too slow and does not end up coming to many conclusions other than more research is needed. While true to some extent, the fact is that research is on going when every NGO implements a project. If they want to admit it or not, they are contributing to the field in this manner and can help things along by sharing where they have found success. This would create a much quicker feedback loop that would allow rigorous research to take a closer look to determine what aspects might have contributed to the successes.

    Sadly, Brendan points out that failure is not acceptable. Here in the US we are taught to shrug off failure and strive for perfection. Failure is seen as more of a personal flaw than a natural happenstance. This means that we do not own our failures, but put our heads down and try to find success. But when lives depend on our successes and failures, it is inexcusable to push along as if nothing has gone wrong. Worse, we do not share mistakes and failed ideas so as to prevent them from being repeated.

    Thanks for the post mention. I think we share a lot of similar thoughts on this issue.

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