Opinion: Doubling down on failure

Community members in a village in Laos identify areas in the village where open defecation is carried out, to seek to eliminate the practice. Photo by: Viengsompasong Inthavong / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Listening to NPR while driving to work some days ago, I was surprised to hear Stephen Moore, an economist at the Heritage Foundation, state quite categorically:

First, a confession: I am not a neutral party. I have dedicated my professional career to the field of international development, and seen foreign assistance from a variety of vantage points — from donors to implementing partners. So, of course his comments struck a chord. Who likes to be told their career choice has been a total waste?

That being said, it is healthy to have one’s core beliefs aggressively questioned. And Stephen Moore is a smart guy. On what evidence would he be making this categorical assertion? Reading some of his recent writings, he expresses his skepticism about the capacity for central governments to fix every problem and his belief that prosperity comes to economies that deregulate. I agree with Mr. Moore — though I would not have nominated China and India as poster children for successful economic deregulation.

Indeed, if there is one thing the development community has learned over the last 50 years is that government is not the only answer — and indeed is often part of the problem. There are plenty of examples of grand initiatives sold on the promise that they would transform economies — and ended up instead as spectacular failures. Former World Bank Chief Economist William Easterly has been a chronicler of such failures.

“… Foreign aid has been about the biggest waste of money in the federal budget for the last 50 years. There's zero evidence that any of these foreign aid programs have had any effect on development, whether it's in the Middle East or Africa or South America. And there's just zero evidence that any of that development aid has had any effect on raising the living standards …”

But do those failures warrant throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater? I don’t think so. In a recent blog, Steve Radelet reminds us of the preponderance of evidence illustrating not just how much success in economic growth and poverty reduction we have seen over the last 50 years, but that the United States, and its development dollars, have been instrumental in advancing that very successful development agenda.

It is worth noting that at the heart of our success in development there have been plenty of failures. Experimentation and failure are essential elements of any successful endeavor in international development. In fact, this is true in most of our greatest successes — in business and in government. It took Thomas Edison 1000 tries before he had a successful light bulb. Successful and iconic United States companies such as GE have a culture that celebrates risk taking and makes it safe to fail. Government investments in science, technology and medicine — and ambitious projects such as putting a man on the moon or eradicating diseases such as smallpox or polio from the face of the earth — required, not just tolerated, failure. In the U.S., our laws make it easier for businesses to declare bankruptcy — essentially to fail faster — so they can get their act together and try again.

Tackling these challenges effectively requires constant experimentation. Experimentation is about failure. It is also about learning and adapting.

Most problems tackled by foreign assistance are not just complex, they are wicked. Building a road or a railroad is a complex problem, but the solution is identifiable and, though technically difficult, can be worked out. Getting a community to stop open defecation — a key to preventing malnutrition and stunting — or enabling girls to attend and stay in school, is another matter. Wicked problems are socially complex, difficult to define clearly, and are not stable. And because the problems are not clear or stable, neither are the solutions. Tackling these challenges effectively requires constant experimentation. Experimentation is about failure. It is also about learning and adapting. For Plan, it is this ability to experiment, test, learn, and iterate that has led to sustainable successes across a growing number of communities, tackling wicked problems in sanitation and school attendance. If we become defensive about our failures we would stop talking about them, and stop learning and improving.

Plan International UK CEO on what makes private partnerships work

Plan International has partnered with Barclays on savings products, Credit Suisse on financial education programs, and Unilever on WASH initiatives. Plan International U.K.'s chief executive officer, Tanya Barron, sat down with Devex at the Asian Development Bank's 50th annual meeting to explain what they look for in a corporate partner, and why this may well be the key to sustainable change.

The failures Moore, Easterly and others like to point to illustrate not that foreign assistance is a failure but that it is wasteful to apply linear thinking and simple technocratic solutions to wicked problems. Getting insecticide-treated nets from the factory to the village is not what will prevent children from being infected with malaria. It is getting the parents and other caregivers to use the nets — and use them the correct way every time. That is not just about capacity building, but behavior change. Behavior change takes time, and it is not work that is easy to scale or replicate. It is slow, steady work — one family and one community at the time.

Approaches to development issues such as open defecation have a long history of regression — which means that success in changing the behavior has all too often been followed by people reverting back to the old habits. Does this failure mean we stop? No, it means we get smarter about what works, why and where.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Tessie San Martin

    Tessie San Martin is a co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and president and CEO of Plan International USA.