Development should not be perfect

“Son is just fantastic,” the cafe owner said. “He’s one of my best staff. To be honest, I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

You can imagine my pride at hearing this.

Son is a terrific barista, and I always enjoy dropping in to the cafe where he works, in the centre of Hanoi, to have a cup of his best cappuccino. He serves ambassadors and officials, visitors to Vietnam and locals who have grown up here, always with his shy grin.

But very few of his customers know that Son once lived a very different life.

He was 14 years old and collecting scrap on the streets when I first met him. Another of the Blue Dragon boys met him and brought him to our centre.

Son was always a lovely kid, but as he grew up there were plenty of hiccups along the way. He ran away from home as a child and simply could not reconcile with his family. Even after Blue Dragon took him in, he refused to go back to school. The first time he got a job, he stole the boss’s motorbike. And at age 17, he was arrested on drug charges and spent several years in prison.

It was only after all of this that he finally settled down, took on a job, and put his whole heart into making something of his life.

So when I am asked, as I regularly am, about Blue Dragon’s success rate, should I include Son as one of our ‘success stories’?

I have my own views on how we should define success. My thinking is that if we’ve done everything in our power to help a young person out of crisis and on to a better path, we should consider that a success – even if the young person chooses a path we wish they hadn’t chosen.

After all, we can only control what we do. For all our struggle and sweat, we have no control over how the people in our care will respond.

But my thoughts on the subject of success are not the mainstream. When I am asked about our success rate, my reflections on the meaning of ‘success’ are rarely welcome.

People want to know the hard, cold data. Of all the young people we work with, what proportion ‘graduate’ and get good jobs?

And there’s the problem.

I actually don’t know. Blue Dragon’s work is much too complex for such simplicity. In Son’s case, we can ultimately say that he has been ‘a success’; but if you’d asked me 3 or 4 years ago, he was clearly not.

And what of all the girls and women we rescue from sex trafficking? After being deceived and sold by someone they trusted, held in captivity in a foreign country, rescued in often terrifying circumstances… at what point should we decide whether they count as a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ in our data set?

Even as I say this, you know that I could be making this easier. You know that I could create a simpler definition of success – like how many get a job after receiving Blue Dragon’s help – and create a quantifiable measure of success.

Yes I could. And that would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?

It would surely make our reporting easier. It would mean we could monitor our own effectiveness so much more transparently.

Or so it would seem.

The idea of a single measure of success is incredible attractive to organisations working in charity and development, like Blue Dragon. And there’s an enormous pressure on us to do so.

There is also an incredible danger in this approach. It’s this: in choosing an easily measurable yardstick of success, we would then need to work towards a high success rate.

And how could we do that? Put simply, we would have to start selecting the young people to receive our help according to their likelihood of ‘success’.

I see this over and over in the development world. Organisations set their definition of success – often around job placement rates, but there are other measures as well – and then choose only those beneficiaries who are most likely to be successful.

It makes perfect sense, of course. But if Blue Dragon did so, would we have ever helped Son?

Would we have persevered with him when it seemed he had no interest in education? Would we have continued to care for him even when he stole from his employer? Would we have maintained contact while he was in prison? Or introduced him to another employer when he came back to ask for another chance?

The allure of 100% success is powerful. Donors love to hear that 100% of the students get a job after graduation, or 100% of the children move back into community based care after just 12 months in care. Wonderful!

Who doesn’t love a success story?

However, the dark side of this is all the young people denied a chance because they are deemed ‘too difficult’. There are kids Blue Dragon has taken on who nobody else would because they would ‘screw up the KPIs’ of organisations who measure their success and market themselves to the world on the basis of their perfect results.

There is certainly nothing wrong with success. But life is messy and not adequately measured by any single variable.

Any effort to achieve a 100% success rate must by necessity involve making compromise, and that compromise is usually the human rights of a person who needs help.

Development is not perfect, nor should it be.

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