The Admitting Failure Story

After a year with Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB), working with subsistence farmers in northern Ghana, I returned home to work at EWB’s office in Toronto.  I was in love with Ghana and the people I met there but frustrated by the inefficiencies of the support offered to them by the development sector.  Inspired by my work with EWB I couldn’t just sit and complain or give up—this was too important—so, like many other EWBers, I put myself on the task of finding a way we could start to address the inefficiencies, and sometimes ineffectiveness, of development work.

This brought me to EWB’s Failure Reports. The 2010 Failure Report was being compiled around the time I got back to Canada and I could sense the excitement across the organization for this third annual edition. Important people were getting involved: Author, professor and well-known actor in the development sector, Ian Smillie, wrote a failure for the report; William Gates Sr. was writing the foreword; Executive Director of Peace Dividend Trust (PDT), Scott Gilmore, had been inspired to launch a similar report at his organization.

I felt that we were at the forefront of catalyzing an important change. In late December 2010, George Roter, EWB’s CEO, summed up the EWB Failure Report for me: “Tangibly, the report is a collection of stories. Fundamentally, it is our way of instituting a practice which reflects the spirit of innovation we would like to see across international development.”

The Failure Report had become more than simply an internal learning document.  EWB was working towards change in the development sector, towards humility, innovation and learning, and the Failure Report was our way of practicing what we preached. This left me wondering how we could spread this change and make it easier for other actors in the development sector to report their failures—and the spark for Admitting Failure was lit.

EWB’s annual National Conference was a perfect venue to launch a new initiative, but only two weeks away. With the tight timeline, an external web developer was hired to build  a website—an ugly website but a website nonetheless—and I stood in front of 1,200 conference attendees on January 14, 2011 with Ian Smillie, Scott Gilmore and Charity Ngoma to launch the site.

That launch marked the start of the excitement for Admitting Failure that has yet to fade. It seems that, as a development community, we are ready to challenge the status quo and push for more voluntary transparency and knowledge sharing in development.

My hope is to ensure the site maintains relevance,  pushing and supporting those discussions and helping actors feel safe and supported in a huge community of people who know we’re on the same side in the fight against poverty, inequality and unnecessary suffering in too many forms—admitting our failures to find greater successes.

But AdmittingFailure.com is only one tiny piece in the huge effort underway to improve the effectiveness of development. At its core it is an experiment which is testing a voluntary approach to transparency but this experiment has already been rife with failures of its own. Sure, there has been lots of excitement (Madeleine Bunting, David Damberger) but there has also been lots of useful and valid criticism (David Week, Jessica Keralis).

I know AdmittingFailure.com is far from being perfect—and could still be a failure itself—but I’m okay with that.  I will try to constantly evolve and improve the site based on great input from you—readers, submitters, donors, media, bloggers, academics and any other interested parties.

So drop me a line any time and thanks for visiting the site.

Ashley