At Least Take Down the Signs

Old-school development and its rusting reminders.


This article was originally published by Stanford Social Innovation Review on May 31st, 2013 with the headline: At Least Take Down the Signs

I just spent another month in Africa, visiting remarkable people doing remarkable work in four countries. In between all the remarkable stuff was way too much time on potholed highways and muddy rural roads. Despite the heady distractions of trying to fix the stereo and arguments about whether "Django" deserved the Oscar for best screenplay (it did), I was impressed yet again by the proliferation of development industry signs by the side of the road. You know the ones I mean -- those metal placards in various states of decrepitude crowing about this or that development project, apportioning the credit to whatever agencies funded or implemented them. Sometimes you come upon a whole thicket of them, everyone proclaiming their generosity in a barrage of acronyms.

I don't know anyone who takes them seriously; they've become ambient noise, like an unwatched TV in the corner of the bar. I've been watching the signs go by for a couple of decades, but this time they started to bug me. Maybe it was because I ended the trip in Liberia, where people are working hard to build a decent country out of the awful mess left by Charles Taylor and his ilk. Maybe it was the critical mass of a month watching them flash by, or maybe it was because these of all people deserve to get the best that we have to offer.

And so, as I sometimes do, I made a point of stopping every now and then beside a peeling sign to see what had become of the work it represented. I poked around, asked the people I was with, and talked with locals. It was of course superficial and unscientific, but I found exactly what I've seen from Afghanistan to Zambia, which is to say, not much. There was the well-built school that hasn't seen a teacher in years, an array of wells with broken pumps, a bunch of demonstration cassava plots choked with weeds, an empty shell where there's supposed to be a bakery, and some "youth advancement" efforts that did God knows what -- a bunch of crap projects that should've gotten people fired.

But as far as I can tell, very few do get fired, at least not for failure to create impact, only for sleeping with the wrong person or crashing the Land Cruiser on personal business. Hardly anyone measures real impact anyway, but if your failure is obvious, you can always blame the government, other NGOs, the lack of proper infrastructure, or, in a pinch, the local people themselves.

But here's the thing: There are a lot of systemic failures. That's why you're there. They are the sea in which you swim; you're supposed to solve problems in spite of them. Stop using them as excuses.

An example: I met a pair of earnest young women working for an education NGO in Liberia, who told me that despite a decade of work, the schools in their region were still awful. Pressed as to why, they cited terrible roads, bad policy, obstruction by certain officials—all the usual things, and all of them real -- but I had to wonder, "Sure, but maybe it's because you're not very good at what you do." This stuff is hard, but if you haven't moved the needle in ten years, it's probably time to go home and clear the way for someone who has a better idea.

A lack of progress should signal a need to change course, not a need for more resources to do more of the same. The point is to solve the problem, not just service it. Maybe it's because I live in Social Entrepreneur Land where iteration is the norm, but the whole three-year project cycle seems ridiculous -- how can you possibly know from the outset if something is going to work? How can you learn how to create lasting change if you don't stick around? And who really believes that a project-by-project, incremental approach solves anything anyway?

At this point, I should probably acknowledge that for all the problems of the development industry, thereare wonderful people out there doing excellent work. Well sure, and thank you for all that you do, but I'm talking about the dominant paradigm, not the positive deviants. Given the dismal record of development aid as a whole and the crap I've seen on this and other trips, it would seem that a bit of generalization is in order.

Besides, I've got a refreshing solution: Let's fire people! Didn't measure impact? You're fired! Built pump wells without a maintenance plan, launched another doomed non-timber forest products project, thought "awareness" was sufficient to drive change? You're fired! Failed to pivot in response to data or didn't gather the data at all? You're fired! No evidence of lasting change? You're fired! Directed others to do the above from your comfy office? You're fired too! Wouldn't that be great? And wouldn't it be heartening to the aforementioned good guys, especially if doing things right got you promoted?

Doing stuff that doesn't work can't be much fun, so perhaps a dismissal here and there would be a favor for all concerned. More important, of course, is that bad development efforts hurt those we're supposed to serve. There is all the pain of dashed hopes and expectations, but there is also a big opportunity cost -- all those failed wells and empty schools got checked off somebody's list, and it is unlikely that anyone is going to come along and do a better job. The reality of nothing is hard; the illusion of something is worse.

We can do better. Over the last month I've seen media campaigns that really do change behavior, transformative ideas for community health workers, and high-impact organizations that are run like disciplined companies. I've seen start-ups with great ideas and the chops to scale them, and later-stage outfits taking proven impact to scale in ways that are realistic and efficient. Best of all, I've met with Ministry officials who are smart, tough, understand impact, and are completely done with pilots that go nowhere and old-school aid in general.

Those signs by the side of the road? They're mostly relics of a failed era, the detritus of old-school mediocrity. Let's shut up and get the work done. And, at the very least, if you really must put up a sign, go back and fetch it if you fail to create appreciable change. Among other things, I'd like to be able to see a sign that says "brought to you by the American people" without wondering if I should add "sorry about that."