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Fail: the 3 biggest development mistakes

Thursday, May 3rd 2012

Last month we looked at the mistakes investors make and, after reading the awful story of chickens eating each other when an income generation project went wrong, we wondered whether there were also common mistakes in development. Turns out there are. GreaterGood’s Sophie Hobbs canvassed causes and SASIX evaluators to learn more about the failures.

Non profits spend a lot of time trying to prove their value and impact to potential funders. For obvious reasons, they rarely reflect and report on their failures. The problem with this, of course, is that it means we are doomed to continue making the same mistakes; sometimes with devastating consequences.

Mistake #1 Not listening to the community
Development practitioners are passionate and motivated people but sometimes they think they know what communities want and need. Even if they turn out to be right, projects that don’t get community buy-in will fail.

“A large international NPO came into an area where I was running a development programme in rural Swaziland and asked if they could build a dam to help with the poor water supply,” recounts Janine Ward on our Facebook page. “They identified a place between two ridges, but the local people told them the water didn't run there when it rained, and showed them where the rain ran. The "experts" felt they knew better and built a dam wall - and guess what happened?”

“With the first rains, the water ran EXACTLY where the community residents said it would and left the newly-built dam empty. Indigenous knowledge is GOLD!"

Mistake #2 No route to market
SASIX evaluators have seen many great income generation ideas which involve the community but give no thought to access to markets. Without a ready and consistent market for your product or service, your great idea will be just that and nothing more. And it can sometimes even do more harm than good by building expectations that are never met.

This seems to be precisely what happened with the chickens in Mbombela. Around 3 000, part of a government income generation scheme, had to be euthanased by the SPCA after they were left to starve to death. The project leader said that even though the government and beneficiaries had an agreement with a local hospital to buy the chickens, the hospital bought them only once and didn’t place another order. So the owners of the chickens ran out of money and could not buy chicken feed.

So angry were the community about what had happened, that the police had to escort the SPCA for their protection. I very much doubt the people of Mbombela will be interested in any more income generation projects in the future.

Mistake #3 No exit strategy
What will happen when the intervention ends? Who will take over? Are they properly trained? Will the community accept them as the new leaders of the project? Is there some sort of mentorship programme in place to guide beneficiaries once the ‘experts’ have left?

Food gardens seem to be a prime example of this, with complex irrigation systems that break down and no-one knows how to fix. Or school food gardens with no plan in place for who will tend and guard the garden during school holidays.

These sound like simple problems, easily solved with a bit of thought and planning, yet we see them again and again. These are the things that make the difference between success and failure and in development, the stakes are high.

Sharon White (@pioneersharon), executive director of Re-Action! gave us her three biggest mistakes on Twitter:

“1. Learn to push back
2. When the answer comes too easy – it may be wrong
3. Humility - people know the answers.”

Do you have mistakes to share? Add them below or post them on our Facebook page or join the conversation on Twitter.