Acton Institute Powerblog

Development malpractice: When failure in ‘doing good’ is worse than ‘doing nothing’

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What happens when governments, NGOs, charities, and churches all converge in scurried attempts to alleviate global poverty, whether through wealth transfers or other top-down, systematic solutions?

As films like PovertyCure and Poverty, Inc. aptly demonstrate, the results have been dismal, ranging from minimal, short-term successes to widespread, counterproductive disruption. Surely we can do better, avoiding grand, outside solutions, and instead coming alongside the poor as partners.

Yet even amid the menu of smaller and more direct or localized “bottom-up” solutions, there is still plenty of room for error. Participants in failed projects will typically respond that “at least we’re doing something.”

But what if failure at “doing good” is actually worse than doing nothing?

In a recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kevin Starr prompts us to ask this very question, arguing that when it comes to economic development and global charity, one significant failure is often enough to doom a community for the foreseeable future. “Once a well is drilled, a clinic built, or a program delivered, an NGO or government official checks a box, and future resources go somewhere else,” he says.”

Starr recounts a recent trip to Ghana, where he observed the work of Saha Global, a non-profit organization that “trains women in rural communities to solve their village’s need for clean water by providing business opportunities.” Using local entrepreneurs, Saha sets up individual chlorinating businesses with the goal of making clean water affordable. According to Starr, the Saha model is a “great fix,” in large part due to their simple process and technology, their use of the profit motive/mechanism, and the “rigorous, ongoing monitoring” that comes along with it.

But while Saha has had having great success in certain areas, other areas have been flooded by a range of competing solutions. In a village called Kulaa, one Saha entrepreneur was off to a wonderful start until the government began offering ceramic filters for free. “By about six months in, most of the filters had either broken or clogged,” Starr explains. “The filters could be cleaned, but nobody knew how, and of course there was no way to replace ones that broke.”

Then came an American church group, which “blew into town with a truckload of LifeStraw Family gravity filters,” handing out yet another method of (free) filtration, but with no training or ongoing monitoring to ensure the solution was sustainable for the future. Soon enough, those filters faded, too, and even the few that continue to be used are faulty or misapplied, leading to “filtered” water that still tests positive for E. coli and coliforms.

Then came an NGO, with yet another “solution.” Alas, what happened next is rather predictable, involving more free handouts, more faulty products, and the same deficit of hands-on training and monitoring, leading to more contaminated water and more economic disruption for the Saha entrepreneur with a solution that actually worked.

“In sum, this village has seen four water interventions,” Starr writes, in summary. “The last three didn’t work, and each of them managed to screw the one that would have.”

As a takeaway, Starr points us to three lessons learned, which he hopes will serve as “basic principles of development” going forward:

1. There is a huge opportunity cost to failure. When you do something stupid, you either a) wreck something that is working or could have worked, or b) or blow the people’s one chance to get anything ever. Once a well is drilled, a clinic built, or a program delivered, an NGO or government official checks a box, and future resources go somewhere else. Failure is worse than nothing.

2. Most “training” for end users is useless. Some guy came by my house the other day to teach me how to keep the wifi up and running. The next day, I screwed it up. So it is for things like water filters. If a product or technology intended for consumers requires “training,” it’s probably going to fail.

3. It’s all about follow-up. If you can’t provide repair and replacement, if you can’t monitor performance over time, don’t do it. If you can’t make a strong case that, say, two years from now, things will still be working—and in a way that inspires confidence that it will work over the long haul—don’t do it. Stuff breaks in ways you can’t even imagine, people use things in completely unpredictable ways, and unintended consequences rule supreme. The devastation of lake ecosystems in Africa from fishers repurposing fine-mesh mosquito nets is a fine example of the kind of debacle that could be avoided with some decent monitoring over time.

For Starr, this amounts severe “development malpractice,” and it’s the type of thing that happens all over the world in varying degrees. In Ghana as in elsewhere, few are taking responsibility for these failures. Indeed, few are even pausing to consider whether success ever occurred in the first place.

Until we recognize the ripple effects of these sorts of interventions, the path of upward economic development will continue to be defined by frustration, waste, and, yes, actual death and destruction.

Whether the “solution” is coming from a government, church, or charity, the same risks apply, and the principles for success remain the same. If a charity-driven solution hopes to succeed, it will require attentive, long-term investment and concern — what Christians might more commonly refer to as “discipleship.”

We won’t be always able to invest our time, resources, and attention completely in this or that country or toward this or that “optimal” solution. But we can start by asking those basic questions about the types of relationships we’re hoping to cultivate and the ripple effects that are likely to occur.

What are the actual fruits or failures of our investments, and who is ultimately responsible? What is the source of our action — economic, social, spiritual, or otherwise — and are we really taking that seriously, as well?

Photo: “Elmina harbor,” Francisco Anzola (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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