Two Truths That Are Obstacles To Development

Two Truths in the Development Sector

Two ideas are generally regarded as true in the social sector. Both inspire people to enter the sector and find a mission — a dream to serve.

1. Any Impact Is Fulfilling

The first truth is about the importance of creating even a small impact.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain.
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

– Emily Dickinson –

Most people have read the above quote or one similar to it and deeply resonate with it. Humans do like to help others and such reminders bring out our inner calling to serve.

I realize that for some the motivation can be, as Peter Buffet states, “conscience laundering”, but we have to acknowledge that many who do not make big money do contribute in small ways, not for tax loopholes, but from a genuine desire to help.

Like all truths, this has a dark side. In our rat-race we lack time to listen, to understand, and help in the true context of the needy, much less to understand systemic issues and address them. So we are often satisfied with a donation and a feel-good photo in return; even the suggestion of an impact is enough.

2. Big Dreams Are More Important

The second truth people generally accept is regarding the size of the dream. If a person has a dream to impact one child, it is nice. Someone else who wants to impact a school has a better dream. The dream of someone who wants to improve a village is even better. Clearly, folks working at a national level deserve more support for their bigger dream and people working globally are considered incredible dreamers and more important. With pressing global problems of climate change, water, health, war, etc staring us in the face, we do need ‘big’ dreamers.

The title of Peter Buffet’s essay — The Charitable-Industrial Complex — gives us a hint about the dark side of this truth. The ‘industrial’ influence on our thinking,  steers us towards bigger projects, standardizable solutions that mention scalability and replicability. And it is dreams that mobilize resources, not actual impact or root-cause analysis.


The Truths Are Obstacles To Achieve Impact

While both these truths stand tall individually, together they have caused a system-wide failure. As described above, they do have drawbacks, and their combination amplifies their dark side and drives individuals, institutions, and society to expend vast resources without accountability, without results.

1. Small Dreams Have To Act Big

We obviously steer more attention and resources towards the big dreams. Small projects do not need big resources. Often they do not get any resources, since small projects do not have the visibility and require the similar attention as large projects. So people seeking resources for smaller, local efforts pitch bigger dreams. This is a mistake, especially when the pitches are ‘successful’. Large resources for the small dream (originally) ends up causing a loss of the passion and efficiency of efforts designed to impact at a small-scale.

For example, a person may have a great idea to help a local school thru a series of activities. To raise resources, they may be forced to pitch the applicability of this process to a thousand schools. The factors for achieving success at the original school might be: passion, local presence, and long-term commitment. These human factors are made less prominent, since those qualities are hard to scale and replicate — what is made explicit is the set of activities. The person may be good at working directly on the ground. They may not be have the same result by hiring managers and overseeing them at far-away schools. So if they do manage to get resources for many schools they are not likely to replicate the results of the original school.

However, the results of the original school will be showcased. The lack of success in scaling, replicating will not be part of the learnings shared.

2. Big Dreams Don’t Have To Deliver

When large resources are steered towards big dreams, another problem can result. Thanks to the first truth, if someone has a big dream, they also have a big escape door. They can exit without providing results in relation to the resources expended.

We are the world by Michael Jackson and his peers in the music world started a major movement of giving towards the poor. Decades later, others including Bono have picked up the mantle of generating resources. However, the results do not match the size of the resources consumed, and due to the fact that some good has been achieved, we do not question the entire activity. By not considering the outcome as a failure in not matching the original plan, we do not seek to learn from the entire process.

Another example: someone has a dream of helping 200 million get safe drinking water, and they manage to raise large resources for their big dream. If they do not reach their goal, they still have a way to look successful. If instead of helping 200 million, lets say that they manage to reach 50,000 people, they can take refuge in that achievement.  This is the problem. Instead of treating the result — not living up to the proportion of the large resources expended — as a failure, we celebrate the small success in itself. This means we loose a chance to examine what went wrong, to learn, to adapt, and try again.


How Can We Achieve Impact?

We need to close loopholes that exists in the current combination of the two truths.

1. Dreams Are Almost Equal

A dream of helping one village is not much smaller than a dream to work in 5,000 villages. Both are equally valid and resources should be allocated based on their approach and plan, especially to share results and learnings.

‘Small’ dreamers need to get the resources to do their work without posing as ‘big’. Whether they succeed or fail, their efforts can also result in learnings and inspiration for other dreamers.

So our challenge is to find ways to support small dreams. Today’s networking and mobile technologies, peer processes, and crowdsourcing options allow us to share small dreams, get support for them, and showcase outcomes.

2. Outcomes Analyzed In Relation To Original Dream

We need to measure results against the original plan. If someone has a dream of helping 200 million people and gets appropriate resources, then a result of 50,000 is definitely a failure. Labeling this type of effort as a failure is not denying that the 50,000 did not benefit or that 50,000 is a small number. It is a statement of measuring the outcome based on the initial plan, the resources applied, and adapting to challenges that surface along the way. Labeling an effort as a failure is the only way to study it and document what went wrong. It will more likely help the next dreamer since it is almost impossible to learn from ‘success’.

‘Big’ dreamers have to show plans that are up to the scale of achieving those dreams. They cannot rely on the status quo or scaling by simple mathematics. And if they fail, they cannot seek refuge in small outcomes, they have to create learning for other dreamers.


Today, our society has become cynical and apathetic, violent and draining. We do not act on the root causes of many issues. We need dreamers more than ever. We need new dreams to mobilize society, we need actionable dreams. We need to act on large and small dreams, and learn and share, increasing the chances of some dreams being successful.


Rajesh dreams about a sustainable society and has created a new model of giving — Philanthropy 2.0 — which increases collaboration, transparency, and effectiveness.

3 Replies to “Two Truths That Are Obstacles To Development”

  1. Rajesh,
    I truly enjoyed this piece and had previously read Peter Buffet’s essay. The last Achieving Impact section really hit home as my organization, Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc., focuses on more “small” dream projects and programs. Thank you for recognizing the importance of all dreams. We are already learning so much from our peers in the Blue Planet Network Peer Exchange Network and hope to become more successful and efficient as time goes on. Thank you for this insightful piece and for energy in moving the water working world into a more effective space.

  2. Sitting one day near a recently built school hand washing station I observed a young boy approaching with, what I thought, was the intent of using the hand washing station. What transpired next was not at all what I was expecting. One is always on the lookout for positive feedback from projects in the field and I had made the assumption that he would wash his hands because the facility was available.
    The boy did arrive at the hand washing station and unzipped his fly and took a pee on the side of the hand washing station and then zipped up and washed his hands! My first reaction was amazement and then I remembered my old education training which said that all learning is directed. In other words the boy had learned one part of the equation but not the other.
    Fortunately this experience took place early in my NGO activities since the conclusion I drew from the boys actions was that just building structures was no guarantee that the main goal of improving hygiene would automatically take place.
    Bringing water structures to a school or village is next to doing nothing at all if there is not in place in the school or village the essential change of habits and attitudes related to hygiene. It is not unlike a new computer, car, or home. Until the positive human factor enters the picture these objects are inert and nonproductive. Similarly noting the number of vaccinations, worming, or individuals visiting a health clinic or chlorine in a water system do not serve to measure the change of habits of the individuals receiving these services.
    So the question arises in this discussion is the goal of PWX to bring water to the world, or is it bring about a change in attitudes and habits related to hygiene practices. Allied to this discussion is how does one measure the outcomes (metrics).
    Will measuring the number of times of use of a well and hand pump; or the water meter reading at individual homes; or the number of latrines built measure the change of habits related to hygiene practices?
    Take for example a home in which chlorine is delivered in the home by way of the water system; the family uses the house hold tap 35 times a day; all members of the family use the new latrine (except the boy); and the mother feeds the baby with her hands. Complex questions require complex information.
    Will tracking the development of the attitude and hygiene practices using isolated metrics give a realistic view of hygiene in the family unit? Are tracking such metrics avoiding doing long term research into what are the most effective means of changing attitudes? Does WASH cover all the “basics” and the dynamics in the home. What basic content should projects have to be considered for funding? Another basic question is who will fund all the activities to provide these answers?
    Will this boy survive his habits to realize his dreams and what information will be crucial?

  3. While 26.9 percent of the world’s population had to live with an income of US $ or less in 2000, this ratio declined to 9.2 percent in 2017.

    It is stated that in the least developed countries, there is a 50 percent decrease in the mortality rates of children aged five and under.

    However, there are still important problems to be solved. More than 2.3 billion people around the world live away from basic sanitary conditions. 890 million people don’t have a toilet in their house.

    In 2013, the number of malaria sufferers was 201 million, while this number increased to 2016 million within three years.

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