When the First Step is a Failure…

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Last Thursday night, we had the 5th Annual Fail Festival DC, and by the tweets and photos it was an amazing event. Woven into the fun were several strong lessons to learn from failure in international development, with my favorite lesson focusing on how long it takes for any real change.
Patrick Fine, CEO of FHI 360, spoke about a project he ran early in his career where he tried to get a community in Swaziland to adopt latrine use instead of open defecation. He focused on making and selling concrete slabs for outhouses, but didn’t focus too much on how to increase community adoption of his innovation. As a result, his project was a total failure – only a handful of families built an outhouse, and mainly as a favor to him.
Even though his project was a failure, many others tried other, better approaches, like teaching proper sanitation in schools and running large scale social and behavior change communication to reinforce sanitation messaging. Today outhouses and even indoor plumbing are a point of pride in the community, but it took decades for that change to take place.
How Often Do We Rush ICT4D Projects?
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Patrick’s story reminds me of our failings in digital development.

  • How we often focus on the technology – spending most of our budgets building the tool and almost no time, effort, or thought to user adoption, especially if easier user adoption would mean we would have to radically rethink our technology approach.
  • How we are so excited that technology can increase efficiencies, we forget that behavior change can take years, especially if that change requires users to rethink the way they work, or alter existing power dynamics.
  • Finally, and most importantly, how we lie to ourselves about our success probability. Our first try with a technology solution will most likely fail – that’s the reality of digital development. Yet, are we really honest with ourselves, our managers, stakeholders, and donors about the high failure reality? And do we give ourselves the timescale to try a second, third, or thirty-third time?

None of us became a technology expert in a day. None of us had beautiful hardware or cool software the first try. We’ve taken years and many, many failures to get to where we are. We need to recognize that our users will need the same timescale for their own expertise.
Digital development will take decades. And that’s okay.