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Flying the Colours of Failure:

Lessons learned in development aid. Tali Alexander, Jonathan Taggart, Meryl Thomas, Chris Ward Royal Roads University, Victoria, B.C. Submitted: October 3, 2011

“Yes, it’s failure, but how good a failure?” - Cornel West (Admitting Failure, 2011).

Admitting mistakes and learning from our failures is not a new concept, unless you happen to dwell within the world of development aid. Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB), a Canadian international development organization, recently set out to challenge the culture of hiding failures (EWB, 2011a). Founded in 2000, EWB’s mandate is to give rural African people the same kind of chances to improve their lives that Canadians enjoy by enabling bottom-up innovation within African organizations and by empowering these organizations to prototype, pilot, and scale impactful programs (EWB, 2011a). Today, EWB has more than 50,000 members, including engineers, students, volunteers, and supporters; likewise, it enjoys connections with numerous Canadian companies, universities, and the government. Since 2000, EWB established many successful projects around the world; however as the years went by the organization began to realize that in its desire to make a difference and promote development aid, it was also making mistakes. By not encouraging transparency and openness and by not reporting these mistakes publicly, EWB realized it was in fact sustaining failures.

Owning up to failures publicly is a particularly bold move for NGOs, who risk losing the donor and government funding that forms the financial basis of their very

existence. This holds even more weight today when competition for donor funding is becoming increasingly fierce and aid scepticism is on the rise (Bunting, 2011). Therefore, in 2008, EWB took many by surprise when it began publishing an annual Failure Report that encompasses failures including organizational errors, project management failures, and mistakes associated with hastily-executed projects in unfamiliar countries and cultures (EWB, 2011b). EWB’s philosophy is that failures should be shared so that other organizations working in international development can learn and improve from these experiences. A select few other NGOs have begun to follow suit.

EWB’s 2010 report, themed “Learning from our mistakes”, outlines several EWB projects that have been considered failures. It provides reflections on what has been learned to ensure that the same failures are avoided and to steer future projects towards success. The following is a summary of the failures reported and lessons learned within this report:

Report Title

Country, Author

Key Failure(s)

Lessons Learned

Near term success, long term failure.

Malawi, Owen Scott

Prioritizing tangible activities as outcomes. Using distorting financial incentives to achieve an outcome.

Make people responsible for their own problems and pro-active with the solutions so that the process becomes relevant and (financially) sustainable for them.

It’s not about the tools, it’s about the process.

Ghana, Luisa Celis

Pushing EWB’s data system enhancement tools, while failing to explore the system in depth (past experiences, other players, emerging trends.)

Rather than promoting new tools for the job, be cognizant of those already being used and expand on those.

Rent to Own. Establishing a micro-leasing business in Zambia.

Zambia, Mark Hemsworth

A planer machine was incorrectly installed and wrecked in the process. Took time and money to fix.

Need to invest in capacity- customer did not have the knowledge to set-up and operate the machine. (Company now has a technician to train the people who will use the machines.) Grow in stages to minimize incorrect assumptions. Align incentives. Selling to the customer is not enough. Build trust.

Personal failures as a change agent.

Ghana, Ben Best.

Getting stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’, rather than having a bias towards action. Did not use tactical (gapfilling) roles to leverage actual more strategic goals.

Know thyself. Prioritize work that is important and be willing to make changes.

Improving our act. A lesson in advocacy.

Canadian Programs, James Haga

After doing exceptionally well at influencing political decision makers in principle, the team did not follow up swiftly enough with a more focussed, specific ask.

Focus the agenda. Great ideas need to be acted upon (all talk, no action).

Bring EWB to work. Theory of mobilization.

Canadian Programs, Eli Angers

While number of presentations was on track, turnout at each was abysmal. Poor timing for sessions (July – during vacation season). No regional representative made for difficult follow-up procedures. No follow-up: 75% of presentations committed were not delivered.

Track progress. Time your audience (know your customer). Personal interaction increases involvement and ensures accountability.

Report Title

Country, Author

Key Failure(s)

Lessons Learned

Failure in distributed innovation.

Canadian Programs, Jonathan Fishbein

Did not want to impose a goal, in fear that the team would lose ownership (assumed team would ultimately choose own goals and that a leader would emerge.)

Clearly define the problem. Have a tangible goal in mind. Ensure structure for the project (who leads, who does what).

Leading effective teams.

Canadian Programs, Erica Barnes

Failed to recognize the correlation between the Program Director’s ability to motivate the team and the success of the project.

Identify individual skills early on in a team project, especially leadership skills (work to your strengths).

Organizational priorities.

Management - Canada, Parker Mitchel and George Roter

Failure to work as a management team. Failure to work with core leaders through planning process. Failure to work plan within member work plans and priorities. Lack of a rigorous process to enhance progress. Too many areas of focus diluted resources and decreased performance.

Focus, re-focus, prioritize, re-prioritize, involve, engage and recognize all team players.

Failing to learn from failure.

Canada, Ian Smilie

Team was in a hurry, was overconfident, didn’t have adequate cultural or historical knowledge, and didn’t do their homework in advance.

Do your homework. Learn from failure. Postscript: Always be mindful of the people you are trying to help.

In the world of international development aid, it is the donors of an NGO, not the beneficiaries that have the power to veto a project, so when things go wrong in a project, NGOs tend to keep quiet to prevent upsetting donors (TED, 2011). Unfortunately, this tactic can result in repeated mistakes. EWB argues that the current model of development aid is not working1, and the organization is leading the way to a more transparent relationship between donors, NGOs, and beneficiaries and beating a path toward a new model of development aid.


Over the past 50 years, more than US$1 trillion has been transferred to international development initiatives in

Africa, yet overall Africans are worse off today (Moyo, 2011).

The current model of development aid is not working.

Discussion #1. In your opinion is this “cover-up” culture unique to the NGO sector or do you think that it applies equally to, for example, the corporate and government sectors? Please explain.

You may wish to consider taking into account the distinct funding models, accountabilities, and/or organizational structures of NGOs, corporations, or governments within your explanation. Alternatively, you may wish to consider discussing how the historical context of international development aid may or may not have contributed to the cover-up culture in development aid..

Please view EWB’s David Damberger TED talk on “Learning from Failure” at http:// While viewing this video, please take particular note of Damberger’s first project with Engineers Without Borders in India, whereby he was responsible for designing a rainwater harvesting system that was intended to provide a village with its own water supply. Damberger clearly takes the ultimate failure of this project very personally and this gives him the insight and courage to publicly admit failure.

#2. Consider sharing with the group a time when you failed. Please consider the following: How did it feel? What did you learn? Did you share this failure with others within your organization or outside of your organization? (Why or why not?) What do you think the impact of sharing or not sharing this failure was?

Flying the Colours of Failure: Lessions Learned in Development Aid  

Tali Alexander, Meryl Thomas, Jonathan Taggart, Chris WardRoyal Roads University, Victoria, B.C.Submitted: October 3, 2011