Why Development Projects Fail: One Size Does Not Fit All

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This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

Last week we told you about FAILFaire, an event where people talk about international development projects that failed.

Many of these projects started as good ideas. Others had some level of success, but not enough to have a measurable effect on the lives of people in developing countries.

A nonprofit group in New York called MobileActive held the first FAILFaire earlier this year. MobileActive is made up of people and organizations that use technology to try to improve the lives of the poor.

Katrin Verclas came up with the idea for FAILFaire as a way to help nonprofit groups improve by learning from the mistakes of others.

Katrin Verclas: "The primary goal is to learn from failure and not to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. And for a community of practitioners to benefit from the lessons learned from other people so that we can do better the next time around, collectively as a field, and individually as organizations and practitioners."

Katrin Verclas says there are many reasons why projects fail, but one reason tops all others. She says development projects are not "one size fits all," yet many people try to import ideas as if they were.

What they fail to consider, she says, is the desires of the local people or their cultural, economic and political differences. She says the problem for many nongovernmental organizations and other groups is simply not knowing their audience.

Katrin Verclas: "Western organizations, or NGOs, or donors in particular have particular ideas about what might be alleviating a particular problem in a developing country, without a really good understanding of the end users or the beneficiaries."

The creator of FAILFaire says this is true not only with technology but other projects as well. Ms. Verclas hopes nonprofits in other industries and fields will create their own versions of FAILFaire.

A second FAILFaire took place in July in Washington. The World Bank Institute co-sponsored the event. To Katrin Verclas, it was a good sign to have the World Bank support such open discussions about failure.

Katrin Verclas: "We have a lot riding on this, after all.  It's not just products; it's people's lives and well-being and livelihoods in many developing countries that we're talking about. So it's incumbent upon us to be very, very honest about what projects aren't performing according to expectations."

An award for the best worst failure story went to Michael Trucano from the World Bank Institute. What he presented was in fact a list. It was a list of what he considers the worst practices in the use of information and communication technologies in education.

Mr. Trucano gets to keep the award until the next FAILFaire, which is expected to be held on the West Coast this fall. You can find a link to his list of the top ten worst practices at voaspecialenglish.com.

And that's the VOA Special English Development Report, written by June Simms. I'm Steve Ember.

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