‘We didn’t know’ is no longer a valid excuse

shutterstock_172710695Since the US election result there have been thousands of social media posts and opinion pieces asking “How did this happen?”. People were visibly shaken at the announcement of the next United States President-elect, Donald Trump. I admit that I was shocked too. But should I be?

If I’m honest with myself, I spend most of my time trolling news and other websites that usually confirm what I already know and want to believe. The Facebook algorithm has happily provided me with agreeable “friends” and their likeable comments.

Would I be less confused if I spent more time listening to voices that aren’t as friendly, to opinions that aren’t as easily consumable? Would America’s center-left have performed better if they had a better understanding of Trump’s disgruntled base?

In my years working in aid and development, there are similar moments of surprise and regret when we simply forget to listen and act. Meaning to do good, managers often belatedly acknowledge that their programs had either unintended negative consequences or simply could have been implemented better.

We didn’t know that our biofuel jatropha would lead to land grabs and farmer displacement.

We didn’t know that our malaria bednets were damaging the environment and fishermen livelihoods.

We didn’t know that our conservation project was damaging an indigenous community.

Development is complex. Delivery of goods and services requires messy and unpredictable supply chains. Visibility into this chain is often limited especially for people who are managing it from far away (international nongovernmental organizations, donors and others). The refrain of “We didn’t know!” appears a little too much, a little too late. Not rarely because when we do come to enlightenment, it’s at the end of a project when its final evaluation is written and sealed.

shutterstock_317058848Over the last year, I’ve been working with development projects in Zambia helping their staff listen to constituents better. What we’ve found is that collecting and systematically using this constituent feedback can help the INGO better understand what is happening in the supply chain and to improve their program implementation as a result.

In one project, Scaling Up Nutrition, a large international NGO manages a fund and coordinates multi-sectoral activities tackling maternal and child under-nutrition. The NGO oversees managing grant reporting and disbursements to many different district focal points.

By collecting feedback from district focal people and discussing this feedback with them, the NGO has been able to learn what areas are weak and how to improve. It has learnt, for example that many of the people originally trained to do grant reporting have been transferred to other posts. This has resulted in late and poorly completed reporting, which in turn has resulted in late or no grant disbursement and a delay in program activities that depend on the funding.

For this NGO, the feedback is helping improve performance of their day-to-day work. They now know high staff turnover at the district level means that more frequent training has to be provided.

For the donor that funds this NGO, this feedback data helps provide strategic insight on how to understand complex and arguably more risky investments that have so many downstream partners. Performance and risk management are, in this sense, two sides of the same coin.

Systematic collection and use of feedback from different actors—usually those who are closest to the ground, closest to the beneficiary—is a way to prevent the awkward surprises, the “How did this happen?”

We need to focus less on writing the yes-men reports that sing glowing praises about our work. Report writing today—like my Facebook feed—has an algorithm and bias that doesn’t encourage a diversity of voices to flourish. If we continue to fund project M&E that only confirms what we already know and want to believe, when will we ever learn? It’s time to put to rest the worn excuse of “We didn’t know!”

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