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What Success Looks Like

November 12, 2012

Any development initiative aims to foster a change in the social order which makes the poor better off. It therefore measures its success by gauging the extent to which poor people improved their lives. This however poses a question: who is to say what success looks like? When can one say that poor improved their living conditions? The question can be unpacked to generate other questions: where success is seen to reside, what groups stand to benefit more, over what time frame is success to be defined? Let’s have a look at how these questions look like in practice and how defining success is a very problematic exercise.

Multiple Successes. Success is not one and it can have different nuances. The experience of a women’s health and empowerment project in Bangladesh shows just that. To capture all the nuances which success comprises is the job of a good evaluation. A first measure of success can be the formation of women groups which could access credit. The number of women accessing credit is for many a satisfactory measure of success, no need to look beyond hence. However, a closer look can show that success can be multifaceted and multilayered: which women were participating and what women were doing while participating in the groups shed light on other successes. Evaluators found out that women from different castes were eating together (thus defying the rigid social hierarchy) and women were looking other non-family members in their eyes. A success which on the surface could look merely economic can, at a second look, acquire cultural and social connotations.

Whole Measurements.  A water project in Bangladesh shows how the decision makers and the timeframe of success matters when it comes to define success: by ignoring them one could mistake failure for success. Access to clean water is one of the most stubborn problem in Bangladesh. In the 1970s poor rural Bangladeshi had only access to contaminated water. Water borne diseases were rampant. To fix this situation UNICEF build tube wells to pump underground water. The success was defined as getting clean water to as many poor people as possible. A close measure of this success is the prevalence of water borne diseases. By this account the initiative was successful as more and more people were using the wells. This success however contained the seeds of an epic failure. The underground water pulled by the newly installed well was found to be contaminated with arsenic: in the end 1 in 5 wells were contaminated. 40,000 cases of arsenicosis were recorded by 1993 and the main Bangladeshi crop, rice, was tainted as well. What was deemed as success in the first 10 years turned into the source of the problem 20 years later: access to water were contaminating people rather than benefiting them. How long is success for turned out to be a question that matters a great deal.  To fix this situation UNICEF decided to paint the contaminated wells in red to signal that danger of the water. A mass campaign accompanied the initiative to inform rural communities that green wells could be used but red wells could not be used. The initiative “worked” once again: people were not using red wells. This success as set by UNICEF turned however into a failure for some of the groups of the rural communities: villagers who live close to red wells were stigmatized and parents did not allow their children to marry people with arsenicosis.  The who was answering the question what success looks like turned out to matter a great deal.

In sum, what success looks like is a question whose importance is often underestimated. Success can have different nuances and connotations; it can change over time, turning sometimes into failure, and can look like success for some while looking like failure for other. The who and over what time success is defined are therefore pivotal into any development program.

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