Failures are the way forward

By Ambika Samarthya-Howard, Head of Communications at This post also appears on the blog.

Marc Mitchell, President of D-Tree International, gives his Lightning Talk: When the Control Group Wins.
Marc Mitchell, President of D-Tree International, gives his Lightning Talk: “When the Control Group Wins.”

Attending conferences often reminds me of dating: you put your best foot forward and do yourself up, and hide the rest for a later time. I always found it refreshing when people openly put their cards on the table.

I think that’s why I especially respected and enjoyed my experience at MERL Tech in DC last week. One of the first sessions I went to was a World Cafe style break out exploring how to be inclusive in M&E tech in the field. The organisations, like Global Giving and Keystone, posed hard questions about community involvement in data collection at scale, and how to get people less familiar or with less access to technology involved in the process. They didn’t have any of the answers. They wanted to learn from us.

This was followed by lightning talks after lunch where organisations gave short talks.  One organisation spoke very openly about how much money and time they were wasting on their data collection technologies. Another organisation confessed their lack of structure and organisation, and talked about collaborating with organisations like DataKind to make sense of their data. Anahi Ayala Iacucci from Internews did a presentation on the pitfalls and realities of M&E: “we all skew the results in order to get the next round of funding.” She fondly asked us to work together so we could “stop farting in the wind”. D-Tree International spoke about a trial around transport vouchers for pregnant women in Zanzibar, and how the control group that did not receive any funding actually did better.  They had to stop funding the vouchers.

The second day I attended an entire session where we looked at existing M&E reports available online to critique their deficiencies and identify where the field was lacking in knowledge dissemination. As a Communications person, looking at the write-ups of the data ironically gave me instant insight into ways forward and where gaps could be filled — which I believe is exactly what the speakers of the session intended. When you can so clearly see why and how things aren’t working, it actually inspires a different approach and way of working.

I was thoroughly impressed with the way people shared at MERL Tech. When you see an organisation able to talk so boldly about its learning curves or gaps, you respect their work, growth, and learnings.  And that is essentially the entire purpose of a conference.

Back to dating… and partnerships. Sooner or later, if the relationship works out, your partner is going to see you in the a.m. for who you really are. Why not cut to the chase, and go in with your natural look?  Then you can take the time to really do any of the hard work together, on the same footing.

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