What Happens When NGOs Admit Failure?

This is a very insightful TED talk by David Damberger. Here’s the summary:

International aid groups make the same mistakes over and over again. At TEDxYYC David Damberger uses his own engineering failure in India to call for the development sector to publicly admit, analyze, and learn from their missteps.

One of the most significant points is a few minutes in when he talks about the out-of-sync power structure in much development work. With businesses, if a business doesn’t serve people well, customers go somewhere else. There is a self-correcting mechanism in place. With government there is as well (though it is much slower!): if those in power fail to uphold their responsibilities, the people can vote them out.

But with development agencies, the beneficiaries of the work do not have this type of influence. Rather, the donors do — and they cannot know directly whether things are working well, as customers do with a business and citizens do (more or less) with their government. Hence, ineffective methods can be perpetuated for a long time.

Hence, the importance of non-profits paying close attention to what works and what doesn’t, and sharing that information. The result is more innovation and better solutions.

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    Modern technology gives us new abilities to do good but it also opens up new ways to fail.

    I mean, how awesome is it that I can get on the internet and buy food for a hungry family? How crazy is it that I can hop on a plane and be building houses in El Salvador the next day?

    But yet, this modern capability has led to the possibility for breakdowns in communication like this. Philanthropists can drop in and perform good acts with the speed and efficiency of a military mission. I imagine a hundred years ago, it would have involved funds and goods delivered to and administered by local contacts – who would have been close enough to the situation to evaluate and change their efforts.

    I don’t see it as a failure of technology, and I’m not advocating doing away with these capabilities. But I think that these new powers and abilities are things we’re still learning to use well.

    Realizing that we’re still learning is probably the most important step.

  • http://www.takeyourvitaminz.blogspot.com Zach Nielsen

    This seems to me to have huge implications for cross cultural missions and how churches give.

  • Matt

    I agree. I think there’s room for improving the model now. Technology has contributed to some of the problem (per Loren’s point), but also enables us to solve it as well by utilizing an approach like this, or other related strategies.