October 10, 2014

To Succeed, Let’s Make Room for Failure

Next Generation Delegation 2014 Commentary Series

By Caitlin Grady, PhD Candidate in the Ecological Sciences and Engineering Program at Purdue University and 2014 Next Generation Delegate

It is well-known that, unfortunately, many development interventions worldwide have failed to provide benefits to the communities in which they are implemented. One can find failed projects from funders such as the World Bank and International Finance Corporation in Africa, or failed digital villages in South Africa, or a campaign that donated computers to villages without power, and the list goes on. The possible reasons for these failures are numerous: some suggest that it may be due to a lack of local perspective from program implementers, others speculate that it may be the result of trying accomplish too many things things on much too short timelines, or perhaps it is due to one of the hundreds of other reasons outlined in both scientific inquiry and popular press.   

If a quick Google search can find a number of resources on failed projects or programs, why are we still making million dollar mistakes? I reflected on this at The Chicago Council’s Global Food Security Symposium 2014. As a Next Generation Delegate, I had the opportunity to represent a youth voice at the Symposium. Several of the speakers provided new and interesting technological advances or solutions to our complex global food challenges, yet there was little discussion about mistakes and failures of approaches in the past.

I suggest that we should talk openly about previous failures, project planning, local perspectives, follow through, and continued monitoring and evaluation. Let’s make room for failure in international development. This means embracing experimentation and learning from past failures. Some development organizations have already taken this step - Engineers Without Borders, for example, publishes Failure Reports, noting that “development is not possible without taking risks and innovating – which inevitably means failing sometimes.”

We can learn from previous failures, but only if we lower the “costs” of failure in our current social environment within the development community. Together we can change the discourse and start to make significant progress on working to bring basic human rights and needs to all.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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