Two sacred cows of development are "best practices" and "lessons learned". Regardless of your nationality, and whether you are a grubby NGO worker in the field or a desk jockey at HQ, I can guarantee you that somewhere in your office there is a document that refers to "best practices". Everyone writes them. Everyone funds them. Its standard discussion material in round tables on conflict, microfinance, health...whatever the sector, there are BEST PRACTICES and LESSONS LEARNED.
I'm sorry, but it’s all a load of crap.
Not because the findings are not valuable, I'm sure they are (again, and again, and again). The problem lays in the stick your finger in a light socket rule of human psychology. Don't touch the iron, Johnny..it will burn you. I know the vanilla smells great, but trust me, it tastes terrible. She's a bar girl, for god's sake - She doesn't love you! Etc. No one believes that someone else has found a best practice. There is always a better way, and dammit , I SHALL find it (and write a book about it). So donors must - they cannot resist- doing the same old thing, slapping a shiny brand on it and calling it new. And a best practice.
Come to think of it, I am surprised there is not yet an annual prize for best Best Practices development publication. Something to consider, surely.
It goes without saying that arrogance also plays a role in the Best Practices Lessons Learned arena. The implicit assumptions are:
1) that the funder/author is qualified to judge what constitutes a best practice (what exactly are the criteria?) and
2) that someone has actually learned something.
The message is: we did an AMAZING Job on this; everyone should do it just like us!
What about what we did that sucked? How come we never talk about that?
I once had a discussion about this with some of what Artful Aid Worker would classify as Real Aid Worker friends in West Africa. We started trading stories of really bird-brained projects we had worked on (or even designed). We ended up agreeing that what would be really useful is to share those experiences in a Forum des Conneries (idiocies, more or less). It would at the very least remind us that we do not always get it right, and heck, maybe we can even laugh about ourselves a bit instead of touting how much we have learned.
The "Conneries" are endless, and please, do chime in. To get the forum rolling --three I have personally witnessed:
- An animated film, locally made, of comparative conflicts around the world. It sounded like a good idea. However, in the African example the implementer thought it too sensitive to use Hutus and Tutsis. So they opted for Pygmies instead. I need not tell you what an African Pygmy animated by someone decidedly NOT African looks like. To add to that, the entire dialogue was in poetry. It was...stunning.
- Paying people to resolve their own conflict. Aside from the incentive to keep talking, talking talking (eg: earning a salary) and not resolve anything, uhm..hello? this is THEIR conflict. Given the sacred cow of sustainability, its difficult to understand how this happens in the first place. Its one thing to support meeting costs, another to give people who ALREADY have jobs money to fix something they should, in theory have a stake in solving.
- Paternalistic judgments on who suffers most from a conflict that impose selection of beneficiaries. Can someone tell me why, really, its more difficult for a woman to be alive and taking care of her children than for a man to be maimed, tortured, humiliated or just plain dead because of a conflict? Does it really make a difference if the person who has been tortured is in the "ruling class" or "elite" group versus one of the traditional oppressed? Are the psychological effects of torture somehow related to class and former income?
I do believe in best practitioners of development. A best practitioner of Development knows which practices are worth adopting, which can be adapted to local situations and made useful, which to file on the shelf next to the Milli Vanilli cassette tapes.
The best development professionals do not need to tout their successes and sell them as lessons learned. End the proliferation of Best practice and lessons learned pamphlets. Save the trees. Or at the very least, save filing space.