Five ways of thinking about failure in sanitationPosted: November 15, 2012
I’m inspired back to blogging by a thought-provoking workshop yesterday on Learning from Failure in Sanitation, organised by the UK Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP). Huge thanks to all who contributed. We will share notes and ideas going forward very soon. If you are interested in joining the network, email us and join our Linkedin group. For now, these are my thoughts on one of the key questions of the day: what do we mean when we talk about failure? There are at least five approaches to thinking about failure that I picked out from the discussions:
Acknowledge past failure – in a ‘safe space’ – in order to learn and adapt. For example, EWB-Canada’s Admitting Failure initiative aims to build community and create ‘safe spaces’ within and between organisations so that people can discuss and learn from previous failures.
Avoid unnecessary failures that we can predict in advance. Although being more open about discussing failures may be a good thing, participants emphasised that this relies on the quality of the conversations we hold. There is a danger of superficial ‘admitting failure’ for the sake of supposed transparency without deeper reflection and learning on whether the failure should have been avoided and how it could be in future.
Plan for ‘safe’ future failures through deliberate experimentation and innovation. This is Tim Harford’s argument in Adapt. The Triple-S project suggests how experimenting can help rural water services. EWB-Canada conceptualise their approach in a similar way, and argue that the aid sector’s approach to risk, failure and innovation should be more like venture capitalists. Note that ‘experiments’ in this sense will rarely mean RCTs, for the reasons of appropriate paradigms highlighted below.
Recognise failures of paradigm, myths or lock-ins. Robert Chambers argued that many failures – in sanitation and elsewhere – arise because of thinking in the wrong paradigm. Neo-Newtonian practice (things, order, linear predictability) leads to failure in contexts where an adaptive pluralism paradigm (people, complexity, non-linear unpredictability) applies. Yet ‘myths and collective fantasies’ lead to us being locked into the wrong paradigms.
Admit failures of political economy. The failure of India’s Total Sanitation Campaign was the big example presented. Politics, power, vested interests and bureaucratic inertia all play their part. At this level perhaps ‘admitting tension’ between competing priorities and interests makes more sense than trying to ‘admit failure’. Approaches to political economy analysis may help identify certain drivers or blockers but also highlight the limited influence of external actors. Perhaps we should place greater emphasis on the role of NGOs as convenors of discussion and supporting ‘participatory institutional appraisal’ where local actors can explore these issues themselves?
A final thought: there is a danger of focusing on the smaller failures that I started with, while paying less attention to the bigger ones or working in the wrong paradigm. Yet perhaps we can address this danger by not emphasising the words ‘admitting failure’. These words still have connotations of blame and binary outcomes (even though the ‘admitting failure’ initiative knows this and stresses the need to go beyond this). But a show of hands at the end of the day suggested that a majority preferred us to get this discussion going by starting from another phrase instead. Perhaps adaptive action learning, rapid realism, course correction, or embracing complexity?
I’m not able to fully credit every participant whose ideas I’ve drawn on here, but for more work from some of the key presenters see Admitting Failure and thoughts from Ashley Good, Robert Chambers’ book Provocations for Development, and work by Andrés Hueso Gonzaléz on rural sanitation in India.