Unsuccessful development initiatives offer vital lessons — but only if we are open about failure, says Ben Taylor.
I was recently involved in a public declaration of failure. An innovative development programme I ran didn’t come close to meeting its targets, so we shut it down. And we went further, publicly declaring that the programme had failed and striving to share lessons from the failure as widely as possible.
Embracing failure can be uncomfortable, but it plays a hugely valuable role in the learning and improvement process. We need to be more honest — and more encouraging of honesty. Continue reading →
A little while ago, I posted an old op-ed column by Rakesh Rajani, in which he asked “What if NGOs were newspapers?” And I promised to follow it up with some thoughts on our situation here at Daraja, where we are an NGO that runs newspapers, to see how accurate Rakesh’s ideas were. Well, here goes.
Rakesh’s main point was that NGOs are not subject to the strict deadlines that rule newspapers’ work, or to the same kind of pressure that newspapers face to give readers what they want. A reporter who misses a deadline finds that their story isn’t published. A newspaper that comes out late risks missing out on sales and undermining their readers’ trust. And if a newspaper writes about things that don’t interest their readers then that paper won’t get bought again. The nearest equivalent pressures on NGOs have often very little to do with the community – their “beneficiaries” – and more to do with keeping their donors happy.
In other words, NGOs aren’t as strongly accountable to the community as newspapers for doing their work on time or for doing it well. Continue reading →
All over the world, the media plays a big role in holding government to account. In the UK the current panic at the decline of local newspapers is precisely because people recognise the importance of independent local media to local democracy. But in most of rural Tanzania, there’s no meaningful media scrutiny of local government at all. As a result, local government mismanagement and poor performance are the norm.
In the village of Magoda, 15 miles outside the town of Njombe in southern Tanzania, local residents were frustrated. Four years had passed since local government promised them “World Bank” money for a project bringing clean and safe water to the village. So they gave up waiting and decided to take action for themselves. A small dam was constructed in a stream about a mile from the village and distribution pipes were laid, all designed, built and paid for by the villagers themselves, with no government involvement. Continue reading →
It is no secret that Daraja’s Maji Matone programme has not lived up to expectations. In particular, despite considerable resources spent on promotional work – printing and distributing posters and leaflets, as well as extensive broadcasts on local radio – we haven’t had the response from the community that we had hoped for. A six month pilot in three districts resulted in only 53 SMS messages received and forwarded to district water departments (compared to an initial target of 3,000). So we’ve made a decision – to embrace failure, learn and share lessons from the experience, and to fundamentally redesign the programme.
Admitting failure in this way is easy to support in theory, but much harder to do in practice. It may be accepted practice in the for-profit world, but it’s uncomfortable for a donor-dependent NGO. Would it be easier to continue half-heartedly with a programme that isn’t working or close it down quietly and hope that nobody notices? Of course it would. But those approaches would not benefit anyone, wasting money and missing out on valuable opportunities to learn. So we’re taking a different tack, embracing and publicising our failures, and trying to make sure we (and others) learn as much as possible from the experience. Continue reading →
I spent two days last week at the annual Joint Water Sector Review meeting – the so-called “highlight” of the annual calendar of “dialogue”. This was the sixth such meeting to be held – and I have the “distinction” of having attended all of them. But as you can probably guess from the profusion of “inverted commas” in this paragraph, I’m having serious doubts about the whole exercise. Before I come to that, though, let me give you some background.
Around 250 people from the Ministry of Water, other related government ministries and agencies, the “development partners” and civil society all attended, in the workshop factory that is Ubungo Plaza. All the main stakeholders were there. Apart from water consumers that is, who are only represented in the sense that everyone consumes water. And those consumers (or perhaps I should call them citizens) weren’t represented by their official representatives either – no MPs or local councillors attend, with the exception of the Ministers officiating at the formal opening and closing sessions. We civil society folks had to take on that role. Continue reading →
The (UK) Guardian published an article this week on it’s Global Development website about @Verdade, a weekly newspaper in Mozambique that’s distributed completely free of charge. The same paper has been the focus of articles in Time magazine and Think Africa Press as well. They give away 50,000 copies a week, and estimate their weekly readership to be around 400,000 people, making it the most read newspaper in Mozambique.
I’m not aware of any Tanzanian newspapers that are distributed free of charge. There are plenty of newsletters and the like, some of which are made to look like newspapers, but there’s a big difference between a company, government department or organisation publishing a newsletter to promote its own work and a genuine newspaper trying to be profitable using without charging a cover price. Even Femina, publishers of Fema and Si Mchezo magazines, for which the vast majority of copies are distributed free of charge is not really using a free model as it’s usually understood since it is funded by donors. Nor are they really news magazines. Continue reading →
An old Greek fairytale tells of the hare (sungura) and the tortoise (kobe) having a race. The hare runs back and forth, teasing the tortoise about how easy the win will be. Eventually the hare is so far ahead that it stops for a rest and falls asleep. When the hare wakes up, it finds that the tortoise has already finished.
I often have this story in mind when trying to connect to the internet here in Njombe. We have 2 main options – TTCL “broadband” and Vodacom “mobile broadband” (there are other mobile networks providing internet access as well, but Voda stands out well above the others). Continue reading →