Failing to Learn from Failure

by Ian Smillie, Author

  • Project: CARE Housing Project
  • Location: Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • Sector: Community Infrastructure
  • Professional Designation: NGO

Failure

In 1972, shortly after the liberation war, I was sent by CARE to Bangladesh, “a thumbprint of a country in a vast continent” as Tahmima Anam has so eloquently described it. I was to work on a self-help housing cooperative project. We provided plans, material and technical assistance to help people build their own low-cost, cyclone-resistant houses. We imported thousands of tons of cement and enough corrugated tin sheets to cover a dozen football fields. The project was massive, but it failed. The houses were constructed, but the cooperatives – which were arguably the most important component because they aimed to generate funds for longer-term agricultural development and employment – failed miserably. We had a large office in Dhaka – then known as Dacca – lots of jeeps and trucks and speedboats, and many international staff with energy and commitment to spare. Our only problem was that we had almost no idea what we were doing.

While I was in Dhaka ordering freighters full of cement from Thailand, a tiny organization was forming on the other side of town, and in the rural areas of faraway Sylhet to the north. I recall meeting Fazle Hasan Abed at least once in 1972 or 1973, and I remember people speaking about BRAC with a kind of awe. Their attitude did not flow from anything remarkable BRAC was doing at the time – everything was remarkable in those terrible postwar years. What caught people’s attention was the fact that BRAC was a Bangladeshi development organization – something that few outsiders had ever heard of, much less conceived.

Over the years I have been privileged to return to Bangladesh many times, often to work with BRAC on a project design or an evaluation or a report. I have never visited and found the same organization twice. On each visit there is always something new – ten thousand more schools; a dairy; a university; a functional cure for tuberculosis. In 2007 BRAC’s microfinance lending topped a billion dollars. A billion. The amazing thing about all of BRAC’s achievements is that they have been accomplished in one of the most hostile climates in the world – hostile in every sense of the word: meteorologically speaking, economically and politically. And now BRAC is taking its lessons to other Asian countries and Africa.

Learning

The CARE housing project failed because we were in a hurry, we were overconfident, we didn’t have adequate cultural or historical knowledge, and we didn’t do the homework that might have told us in advance what we were going to learn the hard way. BRAC too was forced to learn – sometimes from study, sometimes from experimentation, sometimes from failure. Unlike those of us who moved on from Bangladesh to other things, however, BRAC stayed. It remembered what it learned and it applied the lessons in ways that allowed it to expand and to become what is arguably one of the most effective development organizations in the world today.

The development business is largely uncharted territory. If we knew how to end poverty, we would have done it a long time ago. And yet the enterprise is notoriously risk-averse; donors demand results and punish failure. The development challenge is not to avoid the risk that comes with charting new paths. It is not to deny
failure. It is to learn, to remember, and to apply what is being remembered. That is the difference between information – of which we have so much today – and knowledge, of which we seem to have far too little.

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3 Comments

Got something to say? Feel free, I want to hear from you! Leave a Comment

  1. Bruce says:

    Please give us details of what specifically happened in this project. Just declaring “it failed” doesn’t help much.

  2. Kongngy Hav says:

    It is really interesting story!!! I really want to start-up social business in Cambodia on low-cost construction for urban slum. I want to hear full story of the project and I also want you to give me recommendations.

  3. Iqbal A Khan says:

    Interesting story of self –reflection. However, knowledge even sometime expertize is not perhaps enough in development practice. CARE failed and fails but BRAC cited example of success because, BRAC works with people and CARE worked and still works for the people. BRAC assaults poverty with program component, CARE deals with project. CARE has head BRAC had Heart and developed Head overtime.

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