The Development Sector is Achieving Failure

I first started getting excited about the possibility of applying lessons learned in silicon valley to the world of international development projects when I stumbled upon the blogs of Steve Blank ( and Eric Ries ( and the idea of the Lean Startup. The problems they described seemed to parallel a lot of what I was seeing in development projects in Ghana. I wrote about this briefly a long time ago in this post exploring the similarities between startups and development projects. At the time I mentioned a series of posts comparing the two, but never delivered. This is my attempt to get back on that train, which I’ll be tagging with #lean4dev.

Today I want to start exploring one of the ideas that Eric Ries writes and talks about called “achieving failure”. You can check out Eric’s post on the subject here:

While in a lot of ways the development sector needs more room for failure and the discussion of failure, it does not need more of this type of failure. Eric introduces the concept with this paragraph:

“We spend a lot of time planning. We even make contingency plans for what to do if the main plan goes wrong. But what if the plan goes right, and we still fail? This is the my most dreaded kind of failure, because it tricks you into thinking that you’re in control and that you’re succeeding. In other words, it inhibits learning.”

I believe this is also the type of failure that is the most wasteful for development projects. I would argue that it is also much worse in the development sector because these types of failures are never recognized as failures at all.

A stick figure is shown successfully clearing hurdles with a completed checklist before jumping off a cliff.

Stick Man Achieves Failure

The basic assumption that underlies much of the way that many development projects operate is a two-phase design-implement model, much like an engineering project. This facilitates all sorts of things that bureaucrats love, with multiple bidders (and sometimes separate bids for the two phases), and a fair process that goes to the lowest bidder who can demonstrate they can competently meet the project goals. This process is great for engineering projects. It sucks for development projects.

Engineering is mostly science with a little art. A design can be made from day one, and based on experience and some critical thinking, there is a high likelihood that the design will be adequate and will succeed if implemented properly. This rarely if ever can work in the development sector. The nuance of human behaviour and changing environments means that a design can’t possibly be correct on day one. Even if a project is implemented perfectly to spec, it’s likely it won’t meet the objectives of actually helping people get out of poverty.

Compounding this problem is the difficulty of properly measuring success. Profitability on its own is not always a sufficient indicator of success in business, but it is at least a necessary indicator, and companies that are not profitable will fail. The basic measure of success for a development project is much less clear, and much more difficult to measure. Ultimately this means that development projects never “fail” in the way that businesses fail. A development project doesn’t depend on results for the poor to continue – the project is approved for a certain number of years and expected to implement until the money runs out. Of course there are mid-term reviews, and possible extensions, but it is the donor, not the beneficiaries who decide whether the project should continue.

All of this conspires to create a development sector that achieves failure over and over, in both big and small ways. The work gets done, boxes get checked and implementers trumpet their successes, but for your own sanity I wouldn’t ask the difficult questions about what has actually changed. Conferences achieve failure by bringing together academics, government workers and practitioners with no useful action or behaviour change as a result. Yet the conference is called a success based on participation and “fruitful dialogue”. Projects achieve failure by checking off the activities in their work plans and finding ways to appease the donors, without any lasting change for farmers. Individual trainings achieve failure by reaching the prescribed number of participants, but poorly targeting content and having no clear plan for measuring whether anything has changed in the real world. Exit surveys of participants always show positive feedback – unless your free lunch was of substandard quality or you didn’t provide an afternoon snack. As Dery explained to me after lying to a project a staff about the usefulness of a training in the village, “People want to come and do something good for us, so we can’t make them feel bad for trying.”

It’s hard to live in a city like Tamale without developing a jaded view of the development sector, whose branded vehicles choke these streets. There is another way. Ideas for dealing with these types of problems exist in many places. Design thinking, ideas from Lean Manufacturing and the Lean Startup Movement to name a few. There are plenty of people calling out the flaws in the sector, and some who are working equally hard for change. While there are days where I wish the influence of the development sector could be ignored, it can’t be. It is important to push for the changes that will see an industry that achieves failure more often than not become one that is able to deliver on the good intentions that are the foundation for its disappointments.

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10 Responses to The Development Sector is Achieving Failure

  1. Pingback: The Development Sector is Achieving Failure | Admitting Failure

  2. Naomi says:

    Thanks for this, Ben! Definitely got me thinking. I especially love your stick man and the sentence about free lunches. I should take a look at Lean Startup theory…

  3. Zach says:

    Great post Ben!

    I really enjoy the way you describe how the development sector achieves failures from conferences to projects to training.

    “…it is the donor, not the beneficiaries who decide whether the project should continue.”

    If the industry wants to stop failing, isn’t this the first thing that must change? Without this change, our words and our actions are not aligned. We want to give you ownership over the projects but will choose to remember which things you say or suggest.

    • Ben says:

      Great question Zach. It’s a really tough one – beneficiaries definitely need ownership, which paradoxically means that beneficiary feedback can’t drive everything that happens. If that were the case everything would be free and the development sector would be doing nothing but building dependency. Business gets around this problem because financially unsustainable businesses die out, so giving away everything for free (which I’m sure the customer would love) is not a viable model. What provides the sustainability feedback or mechanism in development? Development projects are not about economic sustainability, so donors try and find other evaluation methods to make sure the programs they fund are actually working, but it is obviously not as easy as a financial bottom line.

      Thanks for the comment! Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic of evaluation and program sustainability too. Hope you’re doing well wherever you’re at!

  4. rob says:

    Ben the point you make is in my opinion the reason why development as a whole has been a black hole and money pit with little being achieved.
    A sucessful project should be using the money to get the project started but the end game should be that the project is not dependent on the continuous supply of donor money.
    When that is the case my suspicions are aroused because simply it suite the donor then to have the project go on for their own benefit as long as they wish.

    The key to me is self sustainability should be the goal. That does not mean it has to be profitable but that it should generate sufficient resource at some point to be able to be self sustaining. Otherwise it only lasts as long as the free cash does and thats when accountability goes out the window and bs academic look nice reporting charts and tick boxes become the order of the day.
    If an entrepreneur starts a startup and at some point the invested cash does not have the idea demonstrate its viability and sustainability support for the idea fades and dies. The startup period might take years so i have no problem with a development project requiring years of getting going but at some point it has to turn the corner.

  5. Jacob says:

    Great post, great topic. As a development insider this is something i’m desperately interested in, even if just getting people to think about it to start with.

    I think i’d disagree with the ‘development achieves nothing’ senitment though. There’s quite a lot of evidence that it’s achieving quite a lot – see Charles Kenny e.g. – but i thin the point of this area of thinking is that if we do succeed, either we assume we know why, or we don’t know why.

    But we also have to remember that development is both Political and political. It’s of course much easier to talk about how we could do things so much better, but the fact is at the moment that lots of NGOs get theif funding from governments, governments are spending taxpayers money and are conservative, ipso facto being that they are hyper-averse to anything which opens them up to a charge of wasting money EVEN IF that is actually part of a bigger story which says ‘…but this could be so much more efficient and effective.’

    Solution-wise, i think therefore it’s a combination of lots more talk, and pushing baby steps of progress. It’s not ideal i know, and there are some opportunities out there for doing more large-scale, radical work, so i hope they are really taken up as i’d love to see the results. But i’m certainly looking at new programmes i’m developing to use part of their funds for small – but hopefully increasingly large – pots of innovation, where failure is to be largely expected, and is set out from the start.

    • Ben says:

      Great points Jacob. The development sector certainly can and does do good work in many realms, and my perspective is certainly coloured by my focus on agricultural market development. There have been huge gains in health outcomes due to development dollars that implement relatively prescriptive programmes that achieve game-changing results. I haven’t seen evidence that the same success is scaling throughout the agric development sector.

      Most of the aid dollars I see being spent in this domain still wind up as handouts to farmers and training per diems for government and NGO staff. Evaluating success when your goal is increasing the resiliency of an agricultural market to adapt to changing conditions is a long and potentially impossible task, so donors don’t aim at this level. Instead the quick-win feel-good strategy of trainings and subsidies continues to dominate.

      That said I completely agree with your perspective on small steps and perseverance leading to change. We’ve got some fantastic partners right now that believe in a transformed aid sector and are taking risks to change the patterns of project design and incentives. It’s inspiring to see and makes me hopeful that we will see real changes to the way aid dollars are spent in the near future.

      • Jacob says:

        I work on governance and empowerment. Dunno if that makes me the winner or loser in the competition for ‘who has most difficulty seeing the results of their funds’.

        But what’s good is that there’s a lot more recongition, in the UK sector at least, that there’s just no getting around the fact that development can only ever by minutely about easy, measurable results, and so to really look at how to make the process as good as possible.

        What’s nice about that, potentially, is that if you start to stop looking for ‘the result’ you massively reduce the potential for failure, as so much more is process and work in progress – explicitly so though this time – which is so much more realistic, and so much better as a way of working.

  6. Pingback: The Development Sector is Achieving Failure | Fail Forward

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