Embracing failure and giving beneficiaries a voice

This post is actually about two distinct but connected topics: embracing failure and giving beneficiaries a voice. It was only after writing the piece Do you get your market’s vote? that I stumbled upon this TED talk by David DambergerWhat happens when an NGO admits failure.

In it Damberger beautifully articulates the principle I was talking about in my previous post. Rather than go down the route of NGO closure, he instead wonders about how we might innovate to give beneficiaries a vote.

The other part of Damberger’s talk is around failure. This is a topic I hear people talk about a lot, but struggle with how to bring it to life. The most powerful part is when he shares his own personal regret about a failure he was engaged with, and the downside of the ‘do-gooder-as-hero’ myth. He also points to Engineers Without Borders (Canada) culture of embracing failure, and a fabulous website they developed which unpacks and explores failure – Admitting Failure. Well worth checking out.

A not so lonely planet: the ethics of international volunteering

I’m sure this topic has been explored and written about extensively, and I’m keen to find other views on the ethical dimensions of this field. I was recently pitched a business idea by a young woman who was keen to take the staff of private sector companies to developing countries to volunteer in orphanages.

This was going to be a self-funded private enterprise with all profits going to her and her business partner. Her motivations seemed honourable in the sense that she wanted to make a difference in the lives of children in Cambodia. This was a business proposition though, and she had done her homework on the potential size of the market. From her pitch, her business interests came ahead of the interests of the communities she sought to serve.

From what I had understood, she had been to Cambodia but didn’t have a background in international development. I am not suggesting that experience in international development is the best way to understand how ‘doing good’ in other countries work – I do know of other individuals and organisations who have taken a great deal of time and care to learn about Cambodia and build relationships there. I do wonder however if she appreciated or understood the cultural, social, economic and political dimensions of working in the ‘developing’ world.

There is also the dimension of volunteering itself. While at first glance it my feel warm and fuzzy to volunteer and be surrounded by such generous and appreciative children, there is the question of: who are you actually serving? Read more