Friday, November 8, 2013

Learning Before Investing

"One hundred twenty million dollars and Sach's reputation were riding on the outcome of this social experiment in Africa. Was anyone prepared to smash the glass and pull the emergency cord."

"'In hindsight it's like we were set up to fail...It's not that Jeff's ideas are wrong--he's a big, inspiring thinker. It's not that the project's ambition moved more quickly than the capacity. It makes me feel like a chump. It makes me feel totally hollow.'"

Nina Munk, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty.

I'm a fan of the distinction between constructive and non constructive failures I learned in Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War by Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch. Constructive failures are where we push the limits on what we know by absorbing lessons from the past and relevant theory and practice about design and implementation. Failure teaches us about our assumptions. designs and actions. We learn. Non constructive failures are when we do the opposite -- rush into action without absorbing past lessons and relevant theory. Our implementation relies upon faulty partners and time frames. In reality, I've found myself in a lot of mixed situations of both constructive and non-constructive failure.

The Idealist paints Sach's Millenium Villages Project as a non constructive failure. Too much money, poor site selection, too complicated, too rushed, too driven by ambition -- all undermining factors we know about. This is not to say important improvements for people didn't come out of the project -- or that determined advocacy to end poverty is wrongheaded. In fact, we need more of that. It's just that there was a missed opportunity with a lot of money behind it.

A contrasting story is told about Tostan in: However Long the Night: Molly Melching's Journey To Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph by Aimee Molloy. It's a story of patience, listening, building up capacity and voice within villages, and taking bold steps. Village communities are the guide. We've learned that, right?

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