I, and many sages wiser than myself, have frequently remarked upon the lack of an adequate feedback mechanism in the aid industry. Randomized Control Trials may be the new M&E gold standard but they suck compared to the rapid feedback of no customers that a businessman with a duff idea experiences.
If the system in which you work has little capacity for self-correction, then, to my mind, it makes it all the more important that we contain such a capacity within ourselves. Which is why I totally agree with Dialectician Terence’s critique of the dangers of over-confidence and self assurance within the development sphere. Whether the road concerned is going to hell, nowhere, or somewhere in between, at best hopes will be raised and money wasted; at worst poor peoples’ livelihoods opportunities could be significantly knocked back.
And yet the conservation and development world holds plenty of attractions for the messianic side that lurks within many of us. Moreover, the need to prise money out of sceptical donors readily pushes us into over-emphasising the potential benefits and pooh-poohing the risks. It can be a short step from there to starting to believe our own guff. Whether it is the Millennium Villages Project or the One Laptop Per Child initiative, we can all too easily find ourselves on a runaway train of propaganda and self-justification.
I’ve had personal experience of working with such people. When they are on the money there is no better ally to be had. But when they lose the plot it can be incredibly difficult to persuade them of the merits of an alternative path. Constructive criticism is dismissed as base politicking, and a multi-stakeholder partnership can, in their eyes, be suddenly transformed into a conspiracy to block progress. When they perceive the project is threatened, then everything becomes about defending the project.
We all have our blind spots, and over-confidence is a dangerous trait in many walks of life. But the project success rate in conservation and development is not good. Even if we have good reason to think our proposal is the best thing since sliced bread, we should be wary, for many before us, equally able, have failed. Thus the capacity for self-doubt is, I think, one of the most important assets you can have if you want to work in conservation or development.