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Learning From Development, Global Health Failures Critical For Program Successes

Noting that many development agencies and organizations publicly “documen[t] their triumphs and innovations,” Sam Loewenberg, a 2012 Nieman Foundation global health reporting fellow at Harvard University, writes in a New York Times opinion piece, “Global health and development projects frequently go off course, and it’s not unusual for them to fail outright. What is unusual is for researchers to openly discuss their failures. That’s a shame, because it’s a basic principle of science that you get things right by analyzing what went wrong.” He says “it was a pleasant surprise when, last summer, researchers at Mumbai’s City Initiative for Newborn Health published, in the journal PLoS Medicine, the disappointing results of their three-year effort to implement a community-based maternal- and infant-health initiative in the city’s slums,” and he summarizes their findings and how the researchers “rebooted” to improve the program.

“What is noteworthy is that when the project did not work as planned, the team reported it openly and in detail, providing potentially valuable information for other researchers,” Loewenberg writes, adding, “The risk is that too few people will follow.” With a focus on “getting bang for their buck,” governments, researchers and aid organizations risk “creat[ing] an incentive to go for easy victories, highlight successes and bury failures,” he states. “While aid organizations must be accountable for outcomes, that pressure for positive results should not be an encouragement to skimp on the truth,” he writes, concluding, “Making a difference in the world is hard, often messy work. Pretending otherwise is no help at all” (2/1).

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.