My father worked for SIDA, The Swedish International Development Agency, for the larger part of his professional life. I thought that it was a cool and noble job, he got to travel and we lived abroad with our family and it made sense to me as a kid that we as Swedes did what we could to assist people who were worse off than us. From time to time there was quite a lot of debate in Sweden connected to the idea of development and aid to developing countries and harsh criticism of specific projects. Ask almost any Swede of my age or older about Bai Bang and they will tell you about a disastrous project in Vietnam where Swedish tax money was spent on a paper mill that rather than producing paper ate cash. I remember the news scorning the project: it was about corruption and technical failures, on the idiotic idea of using bamboo for pulp (we all know that you should use pine or spruce) and shovels that were to large and heavy for the small Vietnamese (they had to be operated by two people). -The last image became the public hallmark of the project: Failure built in the inability of transferring knowhow combined with irresponsible spending of our tax money.
Photo: Anders Gunnartz
Some days ago bumped into an exhibition of the project at Bai Bang, it has turned out to be a great success. The mill is highly productive and has grown to be a corner stone in the economy of the whole country. This came as a pleasant surprise to me and made me think about the nature of change. How many projects are like Bai Bang in their infancy and how many of them survive to become the adult success of Bai Bang?
The stakes are high when a project is ambitious or promising to be a real game changer. And projects of that kind will most certainly run into problems.
Do we imagine that change is straight line? It’s all to easy to condemn a project as a failure and stop it, in fact, it’s kind of self fulfilling. “This project is crap and therefore we shut it down och remodel it into…”. I more seldom se the approach “This is an ambitious project and it’s in its nature to run into unforeseen challenges. Now, we are going to make it work.”. If change is connected to an stance like that, “failure” will be seen as something else. I don’t believe that real change is straight line, and I think we should be more worried about “I told you so-ers”, people who are pointing fingers at ambitious projects when they run into their inevitable problems. I told you so-ers can only repeat and they would never have built Bai bang. Change is not for chickens and real succes might be neighbor to failure.