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Success is built on failure - improvements and new ideas come out of knowledge of what works and what doesn't. Therefore, in the context of knowledge management for appropriate technology, sustainability and international development, progress depends on openly sharing failures, just as we openly share successes.
The idea of learning from mistakes (ours and those of others) is sound. Success literature frequently refers to the value of failure: failure indicates that an effort was made, character was developed, lessons learned, and the potential created for a more successful attempt in future.
Why it matters
Typically when a mistake is made in a development program, it is not publicized to avoid upsetting donors. The same mistake can then be made again, and again, and again... compounding the error. Any one of those times (due to an unlucky combination of circumstances) it may have far more disastrous consequences than the first time.
Fear of failure due to innovation represses development. The ecosystem of aid organizations and bureaucracies employs a vast number of people, who inevitably have a vast body of knowledge and new ideas between them. But a new idea is likely to fail - that's the nature of research and innovation. The boldness to fail in such circumstances, and report on the failure, should be rewarded.
Aid and development deal with people's lives and health, as well as their welfare. Repeating failures leads to death and poverty that could be avoided.
Fear of "what donors think" is one important driver of this perverse behavior, which means that donors can have a great influence in changing this culture - by looking for failures (without blame) and insisting that failures be publicized. This includes large corporations and foundations, as well as small private donors, communicating with the organizations they support by whatever means is available (in person, email, Twitter, Facebook...)
All my successes have been built on my failures."
— Benjamin Disraeli, 
I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
— Thomas A. Edison, BrainyQuote
Fear and embarrassment are destructive emotions in this context. Confidence in the fact that others in our field also fail (and yes, they do) and a willingness to own up to these errors, are positive steps.
Notes and references
- Admitting Failure - recognizing failures in international development as learning experiences.
- Publish What You Fund
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