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I’m Sorry. Let Me Make It Up to You - Is There a Role for Apologies in International Development?

Shamiela Mir's picture

Public figures often choose to publicly apologize for their actions, whether the actions relate to their public or personal lives. Most recently, a renowned cyclist, Lance Armstrong was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey where he admitted and apologized for using illegal performance-enhancing substances during his cycling career. The quality and the intention of his apology are up for debate; however, he (or his publicist) felt the need to publicly confess and apologize.

Providing public apologies is one way of exhibiting accountability to stakeholders. These public figures are being ‘accountable’ for conduct that betrayed public trust and contradicted public perception. And, it’s not just public figures that are holding themselves accountable to their stakeholders. Companies are also being accountable by owning up to mistakes and offer free goods and services to dissatisfied customers. For many companies, this is an integral part of customer service strategy and considered smart business.

Is there a role for apologies in international development?

According to Should Business Leaders Apologize? Why, When and How an Apology Matters, “a well crafted, correctly issued apology can enhance a company’s reputation…build trust, satisfaction and customer loyalty.” According to the author Linda Stamato, a successful apology requires credibility, “that an apology be immediate, unforced, sincere and specific in terms of what exactly one did that was wrong and who specifically has been hurt (or what process flawed or product or service affected).” Even a show of compassion and empathy can have a big impact on how stakeholders feel about the company and may open the door for discussion that leads to resolution of issues.

Still, development institutions find it difficult to admit shortcomings in projects. Even where there are institutional mechanisms that facilitate accountability, which receive complaints from project beneficiaries and conduct investigation on whether the institution complied with their own policies and procedures, there is a tendency to handle these shortcomings by defending the decisions made rather than showing empathy or directly addressing stakeholders’ concerns. Things have certainly improved, yet the immediate reaction is to be defensive.

However, there might be good reasons for this tendency. First, there is a fear of the legal implications of ‘admission’ – that if we ‘admit’ and apologize, we are admitting guilt and will be held liable. Second, corporate culture discourages admission by punishing those that make ‘mistakes’ by denying promotions and salary increase or worse yet, by severance. Third, some cultures and societies see apology as a sign of weakness. President Obama was domestically criticized for having gone on an apology tour of the Middle East for admitting to some shortcomings of US policy in the region. This was however, received very well internationally, especially by the people of the Middle East.

So, in order for development institutions to be able to provide credible apologies that are “immediate, unforced, sincere and specific” and proactively provide corrective actions, the corporate cultures must change. To start with, the definition of ‘being accountable’ has to change from ‘accountable by punishment’ to ‘accountable by making things right’. Such corporate cultures must also encourage and institutionalize learning from mistakes and some institutions are starting to discuss this: It’s Hard to Fail by Peter Vowles (DFID) and Big Idea 2013: Learning Fast From Failure by Jim Yong Kim (World Bank). In an article The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes in Harvard Business Review, the authors Paul J.H. Schoemaker and Robert E. Gunther suggest that in some cases, mistakes are a ‘powerful way to accelerate learning and increase competitiveness”. We need corporate cultures that “welcome the occasional failure as a business opportunity.” And, these corporate cultures would naturally encourage more risk taking, which may be necessary to stay in business in this increasingly competitive market for international development.

Photo credit: Butuba on Flickr

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