By David Damberger
General Manager, M-KOPA Solar Tanzania
“Admitting our OWN FAILURE… Won’t work”. That is what I said back when I was on the Engineers Without Borders’ (EWB) National Management Team as Director of Southern Africa Programs. This was roughly when the idea of the Failure Report first arose in 2008. Externally, I argued that it wasn’t EWB who was failing, but the International Development sector we were trying to fix due to its lack of transparency and accountability. Internally, I was scared of admitting that we didn’t actually know what we were doing or how to fix the problem. I didn’t want to risk having our reputation damaged or our funding cut if I admitted that my bet on supporting agricultural processing cooperatives, or my decision to support NGO driven appropriate technology programs, were not working.
It has now been 7 years since then, and the EWB Annual Failure Report has likely done more for improving the transparency and accountability of the international development sector than anything I ever implemented as a Director for EWB. The report has forced us to have a better conversation on what we are doing and why, by exposing mistakes that continue to be made over and over again in our stale sector. The report has revealed the deep structural challenges in-built to the non-profit sector that limit the ability of even the best intentioned and skilled organisations that have to account upwards towards donors instead of towards the people they are intended to serve. The report has opened our eyes to how much better we can be if we share more like Emma Cabrera-Aragon demonstrates in The Lessons We Lost: Water for the World 2015, share better by following Boris Martin’s structure in A Bad Harvest for Failing, and learn faster as Jonathan Haley and Gordon Chan propose in Assumption hunting: Learning from failure in the entrepreneurial context.
Most importantly, the report has forced us to ask tough questions and challenge on our old ingrained belief that supporting only non-profits and governments was the most effective way towards helping create a better world. Reflecting on our answers to these questions has guided us towards our current venture investment model. We were able to see that through profit making social ventures, there is a better structural mechanism for holding organizations accountable to its beneficiaries. My wife and I both currently work in the “social enterprise” sector in East Africa and we can strongly attest to how much more accountable and transparent our companies are. But this sector also has its many challenges that still need to be overcome and many failures that still need to be admitted and learned from before it too can claim to actually be truly effective at scale.
What makes EWB able to talk about failure openly is its commitment to inspiring innovation through reflection and communication. Before you turn the page to this year’s Failure Report, I encourage you to challenge yourself to join the movement and find the courage to start the conversation, wherever you may be from and wherever you may be going.