Embracing the F-Word

“Sir, if you are too self-conscious to use your noise-maker, which I flew express just for tonight, then please pass it back to someone who will.”

Wayan Vota, a self-described “Digital Development Engineer,” was standing on a stage in a D.C. office building, sporting a sequined Santa hat and a red velvet, zebra-cuffed jacket. In front of him sat 300 development workers and consultants. Behind him was a giant picture of the Hindenberg zeplin, engulfed in flames. Vota’s goal was to coax us out of our fear, and he was using every means at his disposal: an open bar, a buffet, a Mardi-Gras themed Christmas tree and a soundtrack of clubbing music beating softly from the speakers. This was a group of people who willingly stride into conflict-ridden, disease-stricken, impoverished corners of the world. That’s the nature of development work. So what were we all so afraid of?

I had yet to see anybody actually step up and say, ‘You know, we worked on this project; we thought it was going to work out, but it didn’t; it totally failed.” —Wayan Vota
 Wayan Vota at Fail Fest 2015, Washington D.C.

Wayan Vota at Fail Fest 2015, Washington D.C.

"We can't even say the word," Vota told the crowd, once the noisemakers died down.

Failure happens every day in development work, but for an industry dependent on donations and glossy brochures filled with success stories, talking about that is taboo. Development organizations can’t quite call a project a “failure.” They succumb instead, as Vota pointed out, to pained, contorted phrases like “uneven successes.” This conference was going to change that.

The group began to cheer with greater abandon as Vota’s speech continued. He had apparently crowd-sourced thousands of examples of development failure, some of which he splashed on the screen to the tune of laughter and hums of recognition: the obsession with the phrase “capacity-building,” abuses of per diem, the unspoken directive to please donors at any cost. As I took notes, I was hit in the head twice by one of the beach balls bouncing around the crowd. Finally, a slide appeared that prompted abrupt, shocked silence.

The fear was back.

“This is the kind of reaction I want,” Vota said. “This is the kind of reaction that prompts us to say, ‘Okay, when I wake up in the morning, sober, I have to fix this.’ Because at least once, someone was instructed to produce this,” he pointed to the hand-written words projected above us. “And it should never happen again.”

The slide read “A Photogenic Rape Victim.”

* * *

It first started in a dark conference room.

“We were all nervous,” Vota told me when I called to interview him for my book. Vota’s known now for the sold-out crowds of his failure festivals, but in 2011 the group that met was small. About half a dozen of them shared their failures with the group—all off the record. It didn’t take long for the atmosphere to shift from tense to cathartic: “I cried,” Vota said.

What Vota’s doing in conference rooms (and what I’m doing with my book) isn't meant to expose flawed development projects, but rather highlight the stigma that silenced their diagnosis. A 2012 study by New Philanthropy Capital in the UK conveys that silence in numbers: of the 1,000 charities that the group surveyed, they found that almost two thirds of them “did not explain how they learn from results” and fewer than a quarter “acknowledged areas of their work where they had failed to achieve an aim or target.” And if it’s that uncommon for charities to mention falling short of a single target, imagine how uncommon it is to talk about falling short of many.

“You only see incarnations of, ‘Well, there were some challenges, but we’re fine. Nothing’s wrong. Nothing’s wrong. Move on. Everything’s great here,’” Vota says. “I had yet to see anybody actually step up and say, ‘You know, we worked on this project; we thought it was going to work out, but it didn’t; it totally failed.”

David Damberger, of Engineers Without Borders, gave a fantastic TED talk on this very subject (check it out here). He illustrates exactly what happens when development organizations can’t talk publicly about their failures: the same mistakes happen over and over again. In Malawi, for instance, a field worker for Engineers Without Borders found water wells built by the Canadian government that had broken within a year or so of installation. And, thirty feet away from that system was another system nearly identical in design that had been built by the American government ten years earlier. It had also broken down, and there wasn’t an adequate maintenance plan for that system, either. Clearly the lack of maintenance plans was a systemic problem—but it kept popping up, because no one had the courage to talk about it.

Culturally, we could all give development organizations a little slack, and stop jumping down their throats about unintentional mistakes. Philanthropists could create a bit more wiggle room for charities to learn as they go, especially for new, “groundbreaking” ideas. And development workers could get a bit more introspective, a bit braver, and talk about this. That’s what Vota’s doing: from the dark, anonymous conference room in 2011, Vota has brought the failure meeting into the light. It’s called Fail Fest, and it happens every December.

“You’re coming, right?” Vota asked at the end of his interview.

* * *

Vota started his lineup of presenters with Ann Hudock, a Senior Vice President of Plan International—an organization which, with hundreds of projects and more than 70 offices around the globe, is in charity’s ring of heavy hitters. Hudock took to the stage to discuss her first taste of being a VP at Plan, which boasted a global project that she said was “too big to fail.” Except fail was exactly what it did.

“You could say,” Hudock said with the air of a practiced presenter, “things weren’t going according to Plan.”

Standing before a banner that read “The Danger of Magical Thinking,” Hudock admitted that she didn’t have a Plan B. “I felt like I was Wonderwoman, and Wonderwoman doesn’t need a Plan B.”

So when Hudock found herself driving along Connecticut Avenue—the same one outside FailFest 2015—one cold February morning, she was blindsided by the news that the donors had pulled the plug on Plan’s largest project. She was on the phone with her mother at the time, and remembers saying, “I have to go mom—I’m about to get fired.”

Luckily for Hudock, she wasn’t fired. No one was. Instead, Plan underwent a massive restructuring process: they hired an external consultant, introduced a new system for project management and completely overhauled communication procedures from field staff to management to donors. In other words, they learned from the failure.

As we applauded Hudock, Vota once again hopped on the stage. “How many of you,” he asked, “work in an organization that would react to a project failure like this?”

Of the 300 people in the room, fewer than a ten raised their hands.

The night went on: a CEO sang a song about project impact on his guitar, heads of organizations made analogies between latrine projects and character deaths from HBO series and Star Wars. One brave consultant admitted to starting a job placement center for Syrian refugees in Turkey, only to discover that work permits were unobtainable not only for the refugees, but also for her own staff.

Between presentations, I chatted with members of the crowd, who praised the bravery of those on stage, and questioned whether their organizations would allow them to speak so freely. The woman sitting next to me pointed out that the conference took place in the former offices of a development organization that had been shut down by USAID and the Inspector General—because of failures.

“Holding this conference here, well, that’s a supreme irony,” she said.

The festival ended in rounds of applause followed by quick exits. By nine-thirty, a crowd had formed at the elevators and the bartenders were shouting last calls. I took one last look at the group of presenters milling around the stage, and I felt that even though we had so far to go, perhaps things were heading in the right direction.

Then I was struck in the head with another beach ball.