Worst practices

We talk endlessly of best practices in development, peacebuilding, business. You name it. I heard an excellent idea at a conference last week: why don’t we write more about worst practices?

His example: “In Liberia we thought it was a great idea to let ex-combatants choose their own training program. Then ten percent chose computer skills training in a country with no electricity. That was a bad idea.”

Yes, it turns out that 22-year olds sometimes make bad decisions, even when it’s participatory.

Kudos to him for being so candid. We need volumes and volumes on worst practices. Some initial suggestions: “When microfinance fails,” “How to royally screw up election monitoring,” and, “101 ways not to reform your schools.”

Please, someone steal this idea.

22 thoughts on “Worst practices

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  4. Wonderful idea. Critics of sharing Best Practice argues that the lack of result data defeats teh concept of a Best Practice. For the most part changing input behavior does not constitute improvement. Perhaps sharing Worst Practices is a possibel solution to identifying improvement. At least by shairng what did not work includes results data, granted not desired results, yet results.

  5. Such a great idea…I would steal it if I knew where to begin. This is certainly part of the growing call for transparency in nonprofit work, and one that needs much more attention than it is currently receiving (somewhat simimlar to your business class post)

  6. Certainly, As many a inventions have come up from someone making a stupid[!] idea a subject of reaserch.
    So can the ‘universe’ of managers, students, scientists, engineers, politicians, administrators,economists and et all can learn from the mistakes of others. And , why not?
    A great subject[tag] to generate a blog community.

  7. – Why typify Liberia as “a country without electricity?”… Of course the infrastructure is basic, but then you could also draw the parallel: why have anyone study medicins as ‘Liberia is a country without decent hospitals’,..

    – I do not see it as a bad choice to let 10% of the ex-combatants choose for computer training… Certainly not if the other 90% chooses for more “basic skills”…

  8. There is a wonderful book from the 80’s called “Peopleware,” geared primarily at the software industry, but with broad applicability. (It’s apparently now in a new second edition.)

    One of the chapters is titled “Teamicide.” The authors realized that neither they, nor anyone else, had advice that would deterministically cause effective teams to form. What they did have was a number of proven practices that _prevent_ the formation of effective teams.

    A similarly useful way of looking at things…

  9. When one aid agency isn’t successful in a project, like drilling a well, fund it again through another agency. I’ve seen USAID fund the same well four times in Sudan until the fourth NGO got it installed with the (voluntary) help of a small, localized NGO, who simply wanted the water to flow.

  10. So you’re in a village, and along comes the development program saying we’re going to help you by building a “grain bank”. What’s that, you say? In your village, each family stores it own grain from its own production.

    “A grain bank means that at the end of the season when the price is low, you come and sell your grain to the bank, and we will give you a high price. Suppose the price is $20 a sack, we will give you $40. So you won’t have to sell to the conniving “middleman”- you, know, Mr. Crab from Spongebob. And then later in the “hungry season” when the price is high, you can come back to the bank and buy grain at the old price plus a little- say $50, instead of the $100 it will be in the market.”

    And you might say, “Why don’t you just give me a $40 loan now and I’ll repay $50 in the hungry season, and I will store the grain myself.”

    “No no, that’s not how we were trained to run the grain bank.”

    “OK, who actually is going to be in charge of the grain bank? I mean, buying the grain?”

    “Hmmmm… we didn’t think about that. Why don’t you villagers run it yourselves as a cooperative? If you do that, we’ll provide you with some grain right now, like a truckload. Will that be enough to get you started?”

    …. you can see where this is going….

  11. you alluded to one of my personal favorites: assume that since a participatory process was follwed the outcome will be a good one.

  12. Great suggestion, if you can find a way to get people to overcome their fear of admitting they made mistakes (an thus avoid repeating them).
    There was a lively topic of discussion on the KM4Dev (Knowledge Management for Development) discussion board. For those interested in the merits and challenges of sharing mistakes check out this discussion summary: http://www.km4dev.org/wiki/index.php/Sharing_Lessons_and_Worst_Practices

  13. How about focusing on multiparty elections when local-level conflicts still haven’t ended?

    Of course there’s the classic example of the Norwegian (or was it Swede?)-funded fish processing plant on the edge of Lake Turkana in Kenya that was supposed to supplement local diets to prevent malnutrition. The plant is now a long way from the receding shoreline. But even if it hadn’t been built in a drought-prone area, there’s still the tiny issue that the area’s inhabitants have a cultural taboo against eating fish.

  14. I’ve never lived in a village, what’s the problem with grain banks?

  15. I think that a lot of economists, initially taught that people maximize their own benefits, would have been conditioned to discount these sort of things – after all, it wouldn’t do to suggest that another entity (including, gasp! government) could possibly make choices for individuals that were superior to their own.

    And negative results are a problem of epidemic proportions in a lot of the sciences. Nobody wants to admit they were on the wrong track, journals are only interested in positive results, and the science suffers as wasted effort is duplicated.

  16. How about poaching the most intelligent and diligent staff from recipient governments to work in country offices, rather than subsidizing their position in the civil service?

  17. Not about development, but “The Implementation Game: What Happens After a Bill Becomes a Law” is good link. even if it makes one cranky.

  18. Asking irresponsible governments to borrow from Goldman Sachs!

  19. For the “101 Ways not to Reform Your Schools” can I propose this as #8: Spend $200 per child giving them laptops.

  20. Professor,

    As much as the idea is immensely appealing to me, I wonder why development practitioners, organizations, or agencies would want to expose their failures publicly– wouldn’t it threaten their very existence?

    That said, I think much of the anthropological literature on development (e.g. Ferguson and Escobar) is focused on worst practices; whether practitioners and academics in other disciplines have any incentive to pay attention is a different question.

  21. Chris- didn’t you post some time ago a link to an article like this- the ten things *not* to do to win a counter-insurgency? Maybe it was someone else.

    My favorite is grain banks. Such an obvious bad idea to anyone who has ever lived in a village, and yet they still keep getting proposed.

    Second is solar cookers. In 20 years of Africa-related experience, I’ve never seen a single family use one. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone in the U.S. use one. Ye the money keeps rolling in.