Posts Tagged ‘feedback loop’

The need for self-doubt

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.


Lindsay Morgan also dispatched her personal thoughts from her trip Southern Sudan. The post had all the usual ingredients, grizzled veterans, impossible projects, crazy donor expectations, poverty that won’t go away and that might get worse when you leave, constant travel to uncertain ends.

One word summed it up for me: SNAFU. It was coined by frustrated foot soldiers in the Second World War. The parallels seem striking to me, and to Lindsay who remarked:

“Aid workers are like soldiers fighting in a war the public back home has forgotten about or doesn’t understand.”

The big bosses at HQ draw lines on maps / construct logframes without any real clue as to what it look likes for those on the ground. Nonsensical orders come through and someone has to make sense of  them. You never get the supplies you ordered; some logistics corps idiot / donor always has another idea. Then just when you’re finally about to make some progress they change their minds and tell you to do something else. No wonder green-behind-the-ears newbies turn into cynical veterans after just one campaign / project, and veterans compete with stories about just how bad it got for them. SNAFU indeed.

There is one important difference. In war there is a pretty severe feedback loop: lose a battle they shouldn’t have and the general responsible will be cashiered in an instant. In aid and development, it seems, it remains SUSFU.

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