A study in development failure

I was pointed today to a Hewlett Foundation report, remarkable for being the story of a $20 million Hewlett project that failed.

The reference reminded me of one of my favorite development books, a classic anatomy of failure.

The Anti-Politics Machine begins with a withering critique of a 1975 World Bank report on Lesotho. The real red meat, however, is anthropologist James Ferguson‘s picking apart of a Bank initiative to develop and liberalize cattle markets in the country.

People’s main assets — cattle — were dying in downturns for lack of a market to sell them on. Households on hard times couldn’t turn their cattle into cash for school fees and food. Unfortunately, the cure turned out to be worse than the disease.

It turns out that cattle were attractive investments precisely because they were hard to liquidate. With most men working away from home in South Africa, buying cattle was the best way to keep the family saving rather than spending. They were a means for men to wield power over their families from afar.

Ferguson’s point was that development organizations attempt to be apolitical at their own risk. What’s more, he argued that they are structured to remain ignorant of the historical, political and cultural context in which they operate.

While I would say this critique is less true today, more than 30 years after the Lesotho debacle some truths still seem universal.

But back to the Hewlett report. What’s commendable about the report is that any wound is self-inflicted. That takes guts.

Amazingly, they are not alone. This New York Times article profiles a number of new foundations facing up to their failures.

One organization I liked the look of is the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can check out their research reports here.