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When the First Step is a Failure…

By Wayan Vota on December 14, 2015

patrick fine fail festival

Last Thursday night, we had the 5th Annual Fail Festival DC, and by the tweets and photos it was an amazing event. Woven into the fun were several strong lessons to learn from failure in international development, with my favorite lesson focusing on how long it takes for any real change.

Patrick Fine, CEO of FHI 360, spoke about a project he ran early in his career where he tried to get a community in Swaziland to adopt latrine use instead of open defecation. He focused on making and selling concrete slabs for outhouses, but didn’t focus too much on how to increase community adoption of his innovation. As a result, his project was a total failure – only a handful of families built an outhouse, and mainly as a favor to him.

Even though his project was a failure, many others tried other, better approaches, like teaching proper sanitation in schools and running large scale social and behavior change communication to reinforce sanitation messaging. Today outhouses and even indoor plumbing are a point of pride in the community, but it took decades for that change to take place.

How Often Do We Rush ICT4D Projects?


Patrick’s story reminds me of our failings in digital development.

  • How we often focus on the technology – spending most of our budgets building the tool and almost no time, effort, or thought to user adoption, especially if easier user adoption would mean we would have to radically rethink our technology approach.
  • How we are so excited that technology can increase efficiencies, we forget that behavior change can take years, especially if that change requires users to rethink the way they work, or alter existing power dynamics.
  • Finally, and most importantly, how we lie to ourselves about our success probability. Our first try with a technology solution will most likely fail – that’s the reality of digital development. Yet, are we really honest with ourselves, our managers, stakeholders, and donors about the high failure reality? And do we give ourselves the timescale to try a second, third, or thirty-third time?

None of us became a technology expert in a day. None of us had beautiful hardware or cool software the first try. We’ve taken years and many, many failures to get to where we are. We need to recognize that our users will need the same timescale for their own expertise.

Digital development will take decades. And that’s okay.

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Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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One Comment to “When the First Step is a Failure…”

  1. Benita Rowe says:

    Good post, I agree! I would add one last point: when criticising or discussing programs or initiatives that have “failed” we need to make sure we don’t forget about the things that may have worked in these programs and build on them. “Bandwagon OLPC bashing” is an example of this. 🙂 I recently saw an organisation whip out cheap, fragile tablets and claim they were going to revolutionise education in country X where OLPC had failed by giving each child a tablet. The education minister of country X burst out laughing which was priceless but that is another story. The point is: a dodgy tablet is not an innovative substitute for a robust little machine for a number of reasons in this particular case. It is actually a step backwards. I’m citing a recent example; it isn’t uncommon to hear this/ see programs similar to this being rolled out. Failing because you are pushing the envelope is ok (provided you fail fast); failing because you either don’t understand why a previous initiative did or didn’t work or don’t question it is inexcusable as it is being done at the expense of the people who can least afford it. Not everyone who works in ICT4D needs to be a software developer (and we should never forget the peopleware) but in order to make informed decisions we all need to be willing to test drive devices/ software ourselves, listen to techies, Google voraciously and learn to differentiate between the things that worked and the things that didn’t work in programs or initiatives that have “failed” in order to avoid reinventing a much worse wheel by adding parts that don’t quite work as well. The tech isn’t the most important part but it helps if it works.

    P.S. If the little green machine survived the hammer attack it can come and live with me.