Can a systems approach help?
TED talks can be very interesting. This morning I was pointed to one by Linn Hammergren in her contribution to a LinkedIn discussion. The engaging TED speaker she referred to was David Damberger of Engineers Without Borders. He spoke about water supply, failure, aid, and learning.
Water supply without maintenance Damberger is a young Canadian who gave up a successful career in the oil industry to start solving problems that matter. He went to India and solved the water supply problem of a school by installing a rainwater harvesting system. When he came back to his family and friends in Vancouver, they declared him a hero. About a year later he learned that the water system was in disrepair for lack of maintenance and he felt like a fraud. He also recounts a similar story from Malawi where one donor after the other provided piped water supply for the same community without any evidence of learning.
Admitting to failure … is tough, Damberger found out. But it can be done. And it is necessary if one wants to learn from failure. As Santayana (1905) says: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” He adds that the need for “plasticity and fertile readaptation” (i.e. learning) is “the price of longevity in a moving world.” I am sure Santayana would have made a great management consultant, if the business world could have understood him. According to Damberger, Engineers Without Borders was able to learn from the past. First it started producing its own Annual Failure Report. Next it started the website admittingfailure.com/ so as to encourage others to share their lessons, too. And they started an awakening call, asking donors to “Sponsor a Spreadsheet” (for maintenance planning) instead of a child. An engineer never gives up!
Learning from failure … is clearly the way to go. And it starts with admitting to failure. I am not a psychologist, but it seems to me that there may be some crazy mechanisms at work preventing all that. First of all, it seems that those most ready to admit to failure, very often don’t have a clue how to improve things. And those who are highly disinclined to admit to it, generally will not be prepared to do so until they think they have a “credible” idea for improvement or “readaptation.” We can see this second mechanism in operation at Engineers Without Borders. But most of all, admission to failure needs a trigger, such as a strong sense of shame and the awareness there is no other option than to admit it. Donors have gone out of there way to prevent that.
Why is aid not learning? All this would hardly be of any interest if it wasn’t for Damberger’s extra little insight, when he compares the development sector to the public and private sectors (see also the top left part of the first concept map). The private sector is held to account by its customers, so it is forced to learn from them. The public sector is held to account by its constituents, so it is also forced to learn from them. But the beneficiaries of aid do not have a mechanism to hold the development sector to account, so the development sector fails to learn from them. The accountability mechanism is between the donors and the development sector (NGOs in particular): in order to receive funds, the development sector is forced to please the donors. And the donors have mechanisms for accountability, but these generally maintain them in “a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten” (Santayana again), so how can there be anything to be ashamed of?
Aid industry must reform … but how? That’s the $64 billion question. Somehow the development sector must learn to learn from its beneficiaries. But it can only do so if the donors do not prevent it from doing so. So, somehow this deadly embrace of pleasing-not-learning must be unlocked. There is already a call for transparency, but does it really allow for failure. Or is it just more of the old accountability that doesn’t carry us very far in terms of innovation and learning? There is also the “best practice” of participation. But participation without power doesn’t seem to work out very well either. We could give up altogether and start investing mostly in the public and private sectors. But that will take a long time to bear fruit in terms of rural development and poverty alleviation.
What about a systems approach? Most development problems, including this one about aid industry reform, are wicked problems. The systems approach was designed to cope with wicked problems. So, instead of putting our faith in more spreadsheets (forgive me David), we could start using the hard-won wisdom of the systems approach and similar concepts. To some extent it will be possible to integrate the systems approach in current practice, but there is also no reason why it couldn’t be run in parallel. How much better and more powerful would be the lessons learned (as shared in e.g. the admittingfailure.com website) if a systems approach could be applied to them? The systems approach can be used both at the planning and the evaluation stage. It has great scope for improving transparency. But most of all, it is a tremendous tool for learning.
Wicked Solutions is a workbook that was published in 2014 to enable you to apply the systems approach to a wicked problem of your own. It has a step-by-step approach without falling into the trap of the linear management approach that is the root cause of many of the sustainability issues that emerge when dealing with wicked problems.