In defence of failure

It was the title that drew me to this evening’s Kapuscinski Development Lecture –  I love his writing (yes, despite the recent criticism of his journalistic accuracy).

The writer himself, though, doesn’t seem to feature much in the lecture series other than as a thread to tie together the rather grandly-named “top global thinkers” on development.

The optimism of today’s speaker, Lord Malloch Brown, on the impact of aid surprised me somewhat. Not surprising in itself – this is an ex-UN and former UK government minister for Africa, after all – but I must have got so used to hearing the same gloominess about Tanzania’s future (or been in that frame of mind myself) while I was there that it was odd to hear someone talk now of development over the past 50 years as “the world’s best-kept secret”. Maybe you need a bit of distance from the day-to-day struggles to be able to see the bigger picture. Because it’s true, in many ways: eradication of disease, access to education, numbers of people rising from extreme poverty – all have impressive figures to quote.

But it’s precisely this need for “measureable results” (aargh! the anti-aidspeak alarm bells ring) that restricts us all so much. Or rather, restricts those spending public money. As Malloch-Brown pointed out, their obsession with accountability puts them in a fairly impossible situation, since investing in development aid is “about as high risk as possible… development aid goes where private money wouldn’t be so stupid to go”. Criticising failed aid interventions is short-sighted, he warns, because to reach the poorest – inevitably, the most difficult to reach – new approaches have to be tried out, risks taken – and inevitable failures incurred.

Government/UN/EU etc. bodies can’t afford to mess around with public money though. So being “original” and “innovative” is left to foundations, Malloch-Brown pointed out – organisations whose CEOs have made their fortunes in the private sector, precisely by doing something their competitors were not. In other words, by taking risks – and probably failing along the way.

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