Several years ago, a friend of mine< Wade Channell, wrote a paper for the Carengie Endowment entitled, "Lessons Not Learned: Problems with Western Aide for Post Communist Countries.". The main ideas that I took away from the paper are that development workers are lousy at learning from each other. Although we might be friends and socialize together, the world of international development workers does not foster learning. He cited four problems of learning (my comments follow each):
* Incentives for Knowing, But Not for Learning: We are hired for the experience that we already have. In the 20 years I've spent working for different international NGOs, no organization has ever paid for any training for me except language classes. Whereas the private sector and even the Federal Government invests heavily in training its employees; NGOs don't. Additionally, I don't know of any professional journals related to international development, except for academic ones.
* High Incentives for Repetition, Low Incentives for Innovation: Donors only want to fund proven successes and NGOs write their proposals to satisfy what the donor wants to hear. This is especially critical when entering a competitive bid. The NGOs seek to divine what the donor wants to hear, rather than to come up with the best approach. The Gates Foundation has made significant waves because they are willing to fund projects that take risky approaches.
* High Incentives for Guarding Information: I was recently project director for one of thirteen projects funded by USAID to strengthen local organizations around the world. Each of the 13 organizations was given a five year contract to do similar work--this should have been an ideal learning environment. Instead, there was very little information sharing. Some organizations even refused to share their annual reports claiming that it would expose their trade secrets! Whereas I emailed my annual report and even my midterm evaluation to all of the other implementing organizations, only one and occasionally a second ever reciprocated.
* Disconnection between Performance and Awards: It is very hard to measure how well a program was implemented and whether its successes and failures are do to implementation or luck--I learned long ago that if you have good relations with your donor, you can explain away any failure.
The funny thing with this problem is that the individual development workers are committed to making a difference. It is the rare development worker that does not work long, hard hours trying to make their project a success.
So what is it that keeps us apart? Why aren't we a stronger tribe? This past year, I watched in dismay as USAID awarded contract after contract to professional consulting firms rather than NGOs. When I talk with my NGO friends, we all believe that we do a better job. USAID says that they cannot see any difference and it's easier to work with the private sector. That's a sad statement.
What would happen if we did begin talking to each other about our failures and problems. What if we shared honest case studies--not the trumped up success stories that we have on our websites. Could we use these blogs, discussion groups, and wiki's to promote this culture of learning and to reward true successes?
Is it already happening somewhere? Post a comment--let me know.