By Belissa Rojas
The race for accountability, transparency and clear results is creating incentives to report the positive: demonstrating that project outputs were delivered, and in the best case, that the interventions had the desired impact.
A quick look at the monitoring, evaluation and reporting systems from the MDBs shows that there are clear incentives to communicate what was “accomplished.” If problems are mentioned, these are presented as justification for what was not possible to deliver.
Many in the development world, are striving to show results via geo-referenced projects and products on maps. This necessarily requires simplification, highlighting what is most relevant in a clear fashion.
However, in an environment where managing by results is rewarded, you run the risk of losing the opportunity to learn from mistakes.
The famous “lessons learned” are then part of a rhetoric with no real system of “failure and feedback management” including mechanisms for positively learning from mistakes to feedback the way we design and implement projects.
In this context, it is important to complement this perspective and ask: how can we learn better? This undoubtedly involves showing not only our achievements but also our mistakes and failures.
Furthermore, if innovation is to be encouraged, failure becomes intrinsic part of the innovation process. As Owen Barder mentioned in “Can Aid Work? Written Testimony Submitted to the House of Lords ” (July 2011), aid performance shall be measured at the portfolio level rather than at the project level.
Therefore, donors, civil society and development agencies should consider that, statistically, a percentage of the projects from the portfolio may fail, and that this failure should be “managed.”
Development agencies should be proactive in determining what proportion of the portfolio can “fail” and likewise ensure that project failure does not occur for the same reasons than prior projects had. Something similar to what the private sector aims with some R&D efforts.
To sum up, “we need to fail successfully, so we can learn wisely and aid effectively.”
Belissa is a Strategy Monitoring Senior Specialist at the Office of Strategic Planning and Development Effectiveness of the Inter-American Development Bank. Her work mainly focuses on project monitoring and monitoring systems design. She holds an MSc in Development Management from the London School of Economics and Political Science and an MA in Finance from Universidad del Pacifico.