The use of euphemism and excuses for failure

In amidst all the usual jargon, international development includes some truly excellent / excruciating euphemisms. ‘Rent seeking behaviour’ aka corruption (or gangsterism, bullying, cheating and stealing) has to be my favourite, whilst ‘Development Partner’ aka donor (he who pays the piper, not exactly an equal partner) is one of the most ridiculous. This reluctance to call a spade a spade is very understandable in the context of international diplomacy – indeed we could probably not do without it – but is less helpful in a results-focused business which is what the aid industry these days claims it is.

Although the two examples above do not particularly relate to project performance, much of this euphemistic language arises in attempts by donors and implementing agencies to explain the failure of their last development project. The preference is always to find some technical or at least technically sounding (hence the need for euphemism) excuse as to why a certain project failed. Although Ben Ramalingan was talking much more generally than about the failure of a single project when he criticised the Results-Based Management framework that I discussed in my previous post, the wrong management framework is another good candidate. Anything is better than criticising the recipient country managers; just because they may be incapable of organising a booze-up in a brewery it isn’t their fault. If anything they just need their capacity building …

So we build their capacity. We send them on a few training courses. Yeah! Now they know how to use a logframe everything will go swimmingly … Rarely does the aid industry really attempt to get to grips with the real capacity constraints; poor management culture and incentives in the civil service. (I’m sure there are more.) Donors know reforming the civil service is hard enough in their own countries, and World Bank supported efforts in developing countries grind along at a snail’s pace achieving only peripheral successes, e.g. performance appraisals without performance related pay or promotion.

I think this partly explains the constant search for new ideas and potential silver bullets in development, even though we actually have quite good ideas already of quite a lot of things that work … when managed properly. When the great new hope comes along – e.g. REDD in conservation – the taps open once again, and all the same mistakes are made over again. “This time it’ll be different”, donors – sorry, development partners! – tell themselves, because, well, hope springs eternal.

This is not a call to end development aid; not all aid projects fail and far from all developing country managers are incompetent. But I do think the industry is going to have to get more honest with itself. We need to set more modest targets for aid projects and stop using implementation channels that are known not to work. Then we need to fess up when things don’t work, and end the self-delusion as to why they didn’t work. International diplomacy can work with appropriate technology human-wielded latrine construction tools, but successful development just needs a few spades.


13 responses to this post.

  1. And we should just say it when something is rubbish. When a kid exposes the emperor’s new clothes before the procession starts, much harm can be prevented. Once the procession has started, nobody dares to say it anymore.


  2. “Poor management culture and incentives in the civil service.” I’m involved in two projects right now, in which these are major, major, major impediments. In one project, it’s the subject of much behind the scenes discussion with the implementing agency; in another, it’s written into reports explicitly. The question is: what do you do about it? (Not a rhetorical question: I need to know!)


    • Don’t implement through the civil service would be my answer. (This is what I mean by not choosing channels that are known not to work.) Unfortunately I doubt that will help you. Good luck!


      • Unfortunately, that may save the project, but it won’t save the country. Sustainable development means that the government has to function.

      • Yes the government has to function. But does it have to provide all the services? Without knowing the details of the project it is hard to comment, but around here far too often the assumption is that the government should implement (control of aid funds) when building a network of competing service providers would be far more efficient, even after allowing for corruption in the tendering process.

  3. Good point. And certainly true in areas like construction and telecoms. Not so clear to me in areas like education and health, where the poor just get pushed out of the market.


    • While the economics of customer choice and hence customer satisfaction providing a powerful motive for good service delivery work much better if the consumer and the payer are the same, there are powerful, principled arguments that health and education services (amongst others) should be free at the point of access. This, however, does not mean that governments have to deliver them. Private sector (and NGO) involvement in government-funded health services in developed countries are not without controversy; but I think the arguments in their favour are much stronger in developing countries where the government-run services may be badly dysfunctional.


      • Any good case studies of where this is being done/tried? Especially in a development context where private sector deliverers might be hard to come by? One of the problems may well be that the main reason that public sector health and education are poor, is that they are budgeted at about 1/10th the amount per person that private sector deliverers get.

      • I’m afraid I have no idea. Am a humble practitioner with only a fairly narrow view of what is happening in our local patch. I’m also sure there are plenty of ways such an approach could fail just as spectacularly as pumping money through the government system.

  4. […] up suggests that donors remain stuck in a rut that emphasises technical barriers (leading to misdiagnoses of project failure) over management constraints, combined with the belief that all you need is a bit of […]


  5. […] and development for anyone’s comfort. Many agencies and practitioners regrettably seek to hide their poor records behind euphemism and by redefining success radically downwards after that fact. Last year an aid bloggers forum […]


  6. People go to a non-functioning government with a project that they expect to be implemented successfully with the non-functioning government as the major partner.


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