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Learning from Failure in International Development

By Neelley Hicks on May 16, 2014
Neelley Hicks presenting at the Fail Faire DC conference.

Neelley Hicks presenting at the Fail Faire DC conference.

A few years ago I traveled to Angola to provide technology training and tools to a local community. Things began to go badly when the trainer, who we had flown in from the United States, arrived late and exhausted after multiple flight delays. Then, once we were able to get started, the donated computer equipment shorted on the unstable local power system.

What did I learn from this experience? First, whenever possible, use local training and support. Second, your IT installation will only be as effective as your hardware is appropriate to the local environment.

Failure has long been the elephant in the room in the field international development.

Traditionally donors have been loath to admit when projects they’ve funded haven’t worked. Unsurprisingly, organizations reliant on donor funding are usually quick to point out success but reluctant to admit where they’ve fallen short.

Glossing over what hasn’t worked has led to, arguably, an even greater failure: the loss of an opportunity to learn.

But, fortunately, a culture of acceptance is growing around the practice of openly examining, sharing and learning from failure—particularly in the use of technology to support development projects.

Sharing failure takes courage. I learned this firsthand when I shared the story about my botched mission to Angola from the stage at the 2012 FailFaire event in Washington, DC. FailFaires encourage ‘Ignite’-style presentations of no more than five minutes describing how a project failed and what was learned.

The auditorium was packed, and filled with representatives of some of the biggest aid and development organizations in the United States. One by one, individuals from groups both big and small took the stage to share stories of things they had learned the hard way.

The takeaway? A few good laughs, and a lot of lessons learned that hopefully will keep these mistakes from being repeated in future projects.

Inspired by this frank exchange of information, I went in search of a compilation of best practices in the use of technology for social good. To my surprise, while there were many journal articles, blog posts, tool kits and books about various aspects of the technology for development field, there was a dearth of concise and practical best practice guides.

To bridge the gap, United Methodist Communications has published the discussion paper, Using Technology for Social Good: An Exploration of Best Practice in the Use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for Development.

The paper is designed to help orient a lay audience, including members of the United Methodist community, to existing guidance as they contemplate how to leverage the explosive growth of technologies like the mobile phone in communities around the globe.

These and other key themes in the sustainable use of technologies to support development projects will be addressed during the Game Changers Summit taking place in Nashville, Tennessee, September 3-5, 2014.

By sharing failures and best practice we can do a better job in working with the communities we serve.

Filed Under: Thought Leadership
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Written by
Neelley Hicks is an ordained United Methodist minister and Director of ICT4D Church Initiatives at United Methodist Communications where she leads efforts to build appropriate, affordable and accessible solutions for the developing world’s complex communications landscape. Follow her on Twitter at @NNeelley.
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4 Comments to “Learning from Failure in International Development”

  1. Bjoern says:

    Thanks for the article – fully agree with learning from failure, etc.

    One of the best practices in ICT, and in particular access to information, is to not require user data / creation of logins in order to access information. 🙂

    Would you be willing to make the report available without the need to log in?


  2. Bjoern says:

    Hi Neelley,

    thanks for the comment – I’ve obtained the document from the website. It wasn’t so much about my own email address, but more of a general comment!!

    Thanks though!