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At Least Take Down the Signs

Old-school development and its rusting reminders.

I just spent another month in Africa, visiting remarkable people doing remarkable work in four countries. In between all the remarkable stuff was way too much time on potholed highways and muddy rural roads. Despite the heady distractions of trying to fix the stereo and arguments about whether “Django” deserved the Oscar for best screenplay (it did), I was impressed yet again by the proliferation of development industry signs by the side of the road. You know the ones I mean—those metal placards in various states of decrepitude crowing about this or that development project, apportioning the credit to whatever agencies funded or implemented them. Sometimes you come upon a whole thicket of them, everyone proclaiming their generosity in a barrage of acronyms.

I don’t know anyone who takes them seriously; they’ve become ambient noise, like an unwatched TV in the corner of the bar. I’ve been watching the signs go by for a couple of decades, but this time they started to bug me. Maybe it was because I ended the trip in Liberia, where people are working hard to build a decent country out of the awful mess left by Charles Taylor and his ilk. Maybe it was the critical mass of a month watching them flash by, or maybe it was because these of all people deserve to get the best that we have to offer.

And so, as I sometimes do, I made a point of stopping every now and then beside a peeling sign to see what had become of the work it represented. I poked around, asked the people I was with, and talked with locals. It was of course superficial and unscientific, but I found exactly what I’ve seen from Afghanistan to Zambia, which is to say, not much. There was the well-built school that hasn’t seen a teacher in years, an array of wells with broken pumps, a bunch of demonstration cassava plots choked with weeds, an empty shell where there’s supposed to be a bakery, and some “youth advancement” efforts that did God knows what—a bunch of crap projects that should’ve gotten people fired.

But as far as I can tell, very few do get fired, at least not for failure to create impact, only for sleeping with the wrong person or crashing the Land Cruiser on personal business. Hardly anyone measures real impact anyway, but if your failure is obvious, you can always blame the government, other NGOs, the lack of proper infrastructure, or, in a pinch, the local people themselves.

But here’s the thing: There are a lot of systemic failures. That’s why you’re there. They are the sea in which you swim; you’re supposed to solve problems in spite of them. Stop using them as excuses.

An example: I met a pair of earnest young women working for an education NGO in Liberia, who told me that despite a decade of work, the schools in their region were still awful. Pressed as to why, they cited terrible roads, bad policy, obstruction by certain officials—all the usual things, and all of them real—but I had to wonder, “Sure, but maybe it’s because you’re not very good at what you do.” This stuff is hard, but if you haven’t moved the needle in ten years, it’s probably time to go home and clear the way for someone who has a better idea.

A lack of progress should signal a need to change course, not a need for more resources to do more of the same. The point is to solve the problem, not just service it. Maybe it’s because I live in Social Entrepreneur Land where iteration is the norm, but the whole three-year project cycle seems ridiculous—how can you possibly know from the outset if something is going to work? How can you learn how to create lasting change if you don’t stick around? And who really believes that a project-by-project, incremental approach solves anything anyway?

At this point, I should probably acknowledge that for all the problems of the development industry, there are wonderful people out there doing excellent work. Well sure, and thank you for all that you do, but I’m talking about the dominant paradigm, not the positive deviants. Given the dismal record of development aid as a whole and the crap I’ve seen on this and other trips, it would seem that a bit of generalization is in order.

Besides, I’ve got a refreshing solution: Let’s fire people! Didn’t measure impact? You’re fired! Built pump wells without a maintenance plan, launched another doomed non-timber forest products project, thought “awareness” was sufficient to drive change? You’re fired! Failed to pivot in response to data or didn’t gather the data at all? You’re fired! No evidence of lasting change? You’re fired! Directed others to do the above from your comfy office? You’re fired too! Wouldn’t that be great? And wouldn’t it be heartening to the aforementioned good guys, especially if doing things right got you promoted?

Doing stuff that doesn’t work can’t be much fun, so perhaps a dismissal here and there would be a favor for all concerned. More important, of course, is that bad development efforts hurt those we’re supposed to serve. There is all the pain of dashed hopes and expectations, but there is also a big opportunity cost—all those failed wells and empty schools got checked off somebody’s list, and it is unlikely that anyone is going to come along and do a better job. The reality of nothing is hard; the illusion of something is worse.

We can do better. Over the last month I’ve seen media campaigns that really do change behavior, transformative ideas for community health workers, and high-impact organizations that are run like disciplined companies. I’ve seen start-ups with great ideas and the chops to scale them, and later-stage outfits taking proven impact to scale in ways that are realistic and efficient. Best of all, I’ve met with Ministry officials who are smart, tough, understand impact, and are completely done with pilots that go nowhere and old-school aid in general.

Those signs by the side of the road? They’re mostly relics of a failed era, the detritus of old-school mediocrity. Let’s shut up and get the work done. And, at the very least, if you really must put up a sign, go back and fetch it if you fail to create appreciable change. Among other things, I’d like to be able to see a sign that says “brought to you by the American people” without wondering if I should add “sorry about that.”

Read more stories by Kevin Starr.

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COMMENTS

  • Dave Thompson's avatar

    BY Dave Thompson

    ON May 31, 2013 10:05 AM

    Thank you Kevin, words to live by.

  • Evan Schein's avatar

    BY Evan Schein

    ON May 31, 2013 06:38 PM

    agreed.  at least take them down.

  • sachu gandotra's avatar

    BY sachu gandotra

    ON June 1, 2013 07:39 AM

    Thanks Kevin for writing a piece of reality. It’s funny but whenever my passion charges me up to look for some welfare work, and I start scribbling in Google, every time I can find voluntary (or paid) NGOs geared up for a medical camp or the one you mentioned, education project in Africa.
    Honestly speaking, the thing you mentioned holds me back. Why should I join this NGO? Are these efforts really revolutionary? Else, are these merely waste of time and money?
    I believe we really need some time to understand what these people want, what actually their culture is, or what’s holding them (Africans) to move ahead? i am so lack of resources is not the only reason. If it was so. then a visible change would have been till now (by the efforts of free medical and educational movements by NGOs and other governing bodies).
    Or maybe they need a different pattern, a unique language for communication, a new form of education (maybe not the regular classrooms or textbooks). We should not forget they are an era behind developed nations. It’s similar to recollect how generations back, the commuting was only on foot or animals, understanding car in that era was next to impossible. But, commuting was there, in a different way though.
    I wish there was a forum I can ask the U.N. team to help people like me in trying to make innovative efforts, but again such bodies need perfect profiles, and not passionate educated souls. Still, hats off to whatever trials have been made for the betterment.
    God willing there would be a prosperous Africa soon!

  • James F's avatar

    BY James F

    ON June 2, 2013 04:38 PM

    Ah, nice thoughts…but you might mention firing the folks in Washington who write the RFPs put out to development firms and NGOs who have to respond within 45 days with an approach to the scope of work at the best price / value for dollar in effort to win work in competition with a dozen other firms chasing new contracts -  and don’t forget the gov’t cubicle dwellers who evaluate the bids for award to then send contractors from “company X” out in the midst of chaos to implement the misguided goals of the RFP which were written based on pieces of fragmented information taken from zero-to-few of the folks who have a grasp of the reality on the ground in the first place…Then, the in-country gov’t pencil pushers, all of 27 years old with not-yet dried ink on their M.A. sheepskins ‘measuring’ progress from within the heavily secured and comfortable walls of the embassy compound, and offering genius-level authoritative advice to Chiefs of Party with 20-plus years of field experience on how to “dot the ‘I’s’ and cross the ‘T’s’. Finally, “from the American People” has always been a misnomer, because 99% of the “American People” have never heard the phrase, nor could they tell you what agency uses that line…99% of the American people do not know what “USAID” is, what it does, or who funds it.  So, for the folks on the “receiving end”, they can blame a whole lot of folks who never even knew the “aid” was sent from their country / tax dollars, toward a failed cause, doomed from the start, by a flawed and inconsistent U.S. foreign policy which serves to only justify itself by claiming to award / send aid into the area in which the U.S. wanted / needed influence for a convenient period of time.  Afterwhich, the contractors pack up their bags and head off to the airport…forgive them for leaving the signs behind…they might have forgotten the signs, in the midst of all the faces, names, and frustrations, crossing their minds…as the aircraft begins to taxi.

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