Facing global development’s fear of failure


One of the most promising trends in global development is the rising priority of understanding and investing in “what works.”

As the funds available for international assistance have flatlined in post-recession years, everyone from donors to practitioners has become increasingly committed to making decisions that are informed by evidence. The attention being paid to evidence-informed development is encouraging — yet the best-kept secret within the growing movement about what works, is the importance of learning not just from our successes, but also from our failures.

One can be forgiven for forming the impression that our development efforts are nearly perfect if typical annual reports, scientific conferences and event social media content are the basis for information. Successes are proudly packaged in glossy formats and heavily disseminated, whereas any objectives not achieved are relegated to the obligatory, and typically short, lessons learned section. This practice does not accurately represent an important reality: development efforts do in fact fail.

Venture capitalists and corporate investors understand that less than 20 percent of new businesses will succeed, and they invest in innovations and new ideas with a transparent acknowledgment of the high risk for failure. So why, by comparison, is the global development enterprise so different?

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