Making mistakes out loud: Why organisations can’t admit it when they fail

Making mistakes out loud: Why organisations can’t admit it when they fail


The 1990s began with an enthusiastic approach to humanitarian intervention and its possibilities. Nelson Mandela was free, Live Aid had raised millions and supporting causes was in fashion. Following the perceived post Cold-War thaw, space for the concept of more international, supra national co-operation was seen as a way forward for politics – and with this came a boom in the support and growth of the development sector. Some Non-Governmental Organisations came into this period as small-time players with smaller budgets and left the 1990s with budgets that rivalled many states. In the early 90s, cash was pouring in to NGOs and iNGOs with the hope that such agencies might be able to supercede complex politics and inefficient bureaucratic systems to take finances and aid to directly where it was needed.

By the end of the 1990s, US troops had been dragged through the street by militias in Somalia, Haiti had been ignored and the Rwandan Genocide was watched by the world on television with reports coming in that quite simply, no-one had really done anything to stop one of the world’s most appalling atrocities. Whilst governments and international organisations had a lot to answer for, so did aid agencies. Innocence was lost and a certain honeymoon period began to feel a little less like it was developing into a healthy relationship. Rwanda was a clear example of how complex aid-giving can be. With the most noble intentions, it is all too easy for aid to go to the wrong parties, for funds to be misspent in times of panic and with the pressure and eyes of the world on events, for aid agencies to shoulder the most public proportion of blame. Maybe this is part of the reason why often, the M&E process is kept confidential and why when something does go wrong, there is a scandal reported.

This blame is often not misplaced: emergency aid and longer-term forms of aid have since been show to have potentially damaging effects on societies and in fact fuel the crises they are purporting to mitigate. Many writers have pointed out the consequences of bad and irresponsible aid delivery. Since this period, efforts to confront these issues and make aid a more responsible process have clearly been seen. The Sphere project came about as a direct result of Rwanda, as did the Responsibility to Protect doctrine now undertaken as part of the UN charter. In the early 2005, the Paris Accords and the Accra agenda for Action demanded that aid be more effective, efficient and transparent. This is where Monitoring and Evaluation has a platform to provide agencies with significant feedback, which can contribute to this process. So, why is it that aid agencies often still don’t stand up and publicly admit they made mistakes?

One of the main concerns that I think still stands in organisations’ way is that there is little space to admit failure in the sector – even if by doing so, improvements will be made possible. Many of the DAC criteria for aid effectiveness require that problems be admitted before they are solved. Accountability and transparency are specifically relevant to this process. Admittance of failures and publicising them would also create more of an open culture within the sector and leave less space for controversial media interventions that publish what can be perceived as cover-ups. The first step with this might come from larger organisations who can lead the way and make space for smaller grassroots operations to do the same. With this might also come more space for donors of all kinds (from multilateral to individual) to begin to appreciate the complexities of aid-giving and make these the focus, as opposed to aid agencies’ admittance that they have occurred.

In reality, this is a process that would take time and involve a culture change within the aid community that is interested in becoming more genuinely transparent – and a responsibility of donors to appreciate the importance of this process. The sooner it begins, the sooner M&E can be focused on solutions instead of detecting the problems themselves.

Author: Kelly O’Donovan 

Kelly O’Donovan is a British national based in Gaziantep, Turkey and is Programmes Support Officer for Trust. Kelly holds an MA in Media and Development from SOAS, University of London. Her academic research focuses on the relationship between the media and humanitarian agencies in the MENA and sub-Saharan African regions. At Trust, she assists the project team with all written reports, research projects and policy creation and also works on documentation design.

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