Embracing failure to improve development

    A piece of paper stamped with the word, "fail." A group of international NGO and social enterprise leaders shared their stories of failure at an event sponsored by TechChange, Plan and Kurante on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Hanz Gerwitz / CC BY-SA

    In an environment in which failures are often tiptoed around or swept under the rug for fear of funding consequences and public perception, a group of international NGO and social enterprise leaders did the opposite — and literally sang it from a stage on Thursday night in Washington, D.C.

    Fifteen organizations including Plan International, TechChange, DAI and CauseLabs shared their stories through song, poetry, and powerpoints at the event sponsored by TechChange, Plan and Kurante.

    Tessie San Martin, CEO of Plan USA, joked that her marketing department wasn’t happy for her to be talking about failure, but that she believes it’s important.

    She talked about Plan’s community-led sanitation program, which aims to make communities free of outdoor defecation, and how they discovered that communities where the program had eradicated the practice regressed back to the old habits over time.

    Plan is now conducting more rigorous impact evaluations, through partnerships with universities and funded by a foundation to better understand what works and what doesn’t.

    “Scale is not necessarily about replication but about learning and adaptation at scale, to do that you have to getter better at data,” said San Martin.

    A trio from TechChange shared their trials doing ICT for development in a song. Their failures included designing an online course for Sudan in English — not in Arabic — and using a free version of Ustream that advertised gambling and beer to host presentations for predominantly Muslim groups of Pakistanis.

    “In online learning, there are no shortcut keys,” they sang.

    Robert Salerno, a development specialist at DAI, encouraged the international development community to think more like kids and to ask hard questions fearlessly.

    He shared the example of the Urban Gardens Program in Ethiopia, where DAI was implementing a drip irrigation program that had been successful elsewhere. What they quickly found was that the program wasn’t suited for the country, with it’s varied topography and shortage of water. “We applied imagination” and found locally grown solutions and were able through course corrections to develop and execute a successful program, said Salerno.

    “Failure was about learning,” explained the DAI official. “We failed, learned, adapted and moved on.”

    CauseLabs founder Azin Mehrnoosh and Zach Hendershot, director of innovation, talked about a project they worked on in Ghana to map public defecation.

    The challenge was that they hadn’t tapped into local mobile usage patterns and people were unwilling to pay the money to text in locations. They quickly discovered that people would rather flash-call and hang up quickly so the other person will call them back — and adapted the program accordingly.

    Mehrnoosh advocated the “pump and dump” method of failure: “Get dirty, fail fast, learn from it, make calculated assumptions and adjustments, then fire with full force.”

    Join Devex, the largest online community for international development, to network with peers, discover talent and forge new partnerships — it’s free! Then sign up for the Devex Impact newsletter to receive cutting-edge news and analysis every month on the intersection of business and development.

    About the author

    • Adva Saldinger

      Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.

    Join the Discussion