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Admitting Failure, excellent idea

One of the hardest things for any organization working in development — or, well, anyone doing anything — is to readily acknowledge failure.

So some Canadian engineers want to make it easier.

For example, Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, got media attention Monday for sort of acknowledging failure. Chan admitted the WHO is not performing well, but said this is because it is over-extended — “asked to do more and more” — and inadequately funded.

I’m not sure that’s so much an admission of failure as it is also a little bit of finger-pointing (since WHO depends upon donor funding to do its job).

Look, I know it’s hard to raise funds, and public awareness, for many of these projects aimed at assisting people in poor countries. Publicizing things going wrong, many do-gooders think, will only hurt the cause.

Yet, admitting failure is often a necessary step toward making progress.

Engineers Without Borders, Canada, recognizes this and, along with several other organizations active in development, has challenged the foreign aid, development and global health community to be more upfront and open about its failures.

They’ve launched and asked organizations to submit their favorite failures. What’s yours? EWB has started the initiative off by listing its own failures. The engineers say:

By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.

Conversely, by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success.

The EWB web site launch is accompanied by a “Failure Report” featuring an introduction by Bill Gates Sr., co-chair of the Gates Foundation. Says Gates:

I am optimistic that this good example will strengthen the global dialogue on how to learn from failure to achieve the greatest impact for those we are looking to serve.

Many analysts and development watchers, like Saundra Schimmelpfennig at Good Intentions are Not Enough and Madeleine Bunting at The Guardian, are praising this as a bold and welcome step in the right direction.

The next step is for organizations to submit their failure reports.

Which of the many global health and development organizations in Seattle will be the first to submit their failure report?


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.