The United States spends billions of dollars on foreign aid in developing countries to improve health, reduce poverty, and increase opportunity.  This money—which accounts for less than one percent of the budget—is often well spent, and the U.S. has achieved some outstanding successes that have transformed the lives of people around the world.  Sometimes, however, we don’t succeed.  When that happens, we should take a lesson from the private sector: there is nothing inherently wrong if, occasionally, great ideas backed by the noblest intensions ultimately fail.  But the fact that development projects seldom fail suggests to me that we are not aiming high enough and that we are spending billions on achieving mediocre results.

Unfortunately, the failure of any government program is deemed unacceptable.  It attracts the attention of an oversight bureaucracy that swoops in to bemoan the waste of public money and blame it on gross incompetence or even malicious intent.  Our inspectors general, congressional committees and a panoply of federal agencies responsible for oversight and compliance come looking for answers and want to see the numbers: How many miles of roads were built?  How many schools were built?  How many children were vaccinated?


But are these even the right questions?  Shouldn’t we be asking: Can people transport their goods to market?  Are children learning?  Are children healthier?  Other equally important questions cannot be answered by statistics: Will we leave behind programs that are sustainable?  Are they compatible with local cultural practices and norms?  Even more critically, are we accomplishing our objectives?  Do we always know what our real objectives are?

Don’t get me wrong: I am not against oversight, and I am not advocating that we should not have objectives and milestones that can be measured and logged on a spreadsheet.  Oversight and compliance are clearly crucial.  But we must remember that process is sometimes as important as the outcome – and very often that cannot be calculated.  My concern is that we have put so many resources into the systems and structures that are supposed to guard against waste, fraud, and mismanagement, often at the expense of funding people and programs that can actually deliver our overall objectives.

It’s not the people that need changing, it’s the system.

I spent nearly three decades in the State Department, beginning when Henry Kissinger was secretary of State, working my way up to ambassador.  Like many others who choose the Foreign Service or international development, I was motivated by a desire to do good and to make the world a better place.  But eventually we all run into this internal monster of our own making – that fosters a risk-averse culture. We plan safe, modest, achievable programs and try not to get into trouble.  To use a soccer analogy, we put everyone in defense so that we do not concede a goal.  But with nobody on the attack, we are unable to score, thereby guaranteeing at best a scoreless tie.

Governments need to take more risks and not be afraid to fail occasionally.  We need to reject a culture that would see three low-risk mediocre projects with questionable long-term value succeed than hit one out of the ballpark with stunning, transformative results.  Governments need to learn from American venture capitalists in Silicon Valley: if three out of ten startups get off the ground, you’re doing great. And if only one of them makes it really big, that’s still considered success.

I am reminded of the wise observation of Pogo, Walt Kelly’s sage comic strip character, who said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  So let’s bring an end to government programs that are deliberately risk adverse, bland and moderately successful.  Let’s stop spending billions on achieving mediocrity.  Let’s stop equating success with simply “not failing.”  If we do, we might just do something amazing.

Miller is the president and CEO of International Executive Service Corps (, a U.S. nonprofit that promotes economic growth and stability around the world through programs that support private enterprise, business organizations and public institutions. He was previously U.S. Ambassador to Greece, U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Special Coordinator for Cyprus at the rank of Ambassador in his 29-year career as an American diplomat.