Changing the way we change the world

This is why we’re here: Kevin Starr’s story about development malpractice in Ghana

By Susan Davis, Executive Director

“So. If you see something, say something. If you become aware of someone planning/doing/funding stuff like this, talk to them, educate them, dissuade them. Do it respectfully and thoughtfully. If that doesn’t work, call them out in whatever forum you can. If they work for you, fire them. Make them accountable. Don’t let these things happen. Don’t let yourself become cynical. Do something.”  This is Kevin Starr’s call to action after describing a village in Ghana that “has seen four water interventions. The last three didn’t work, and each of them managed to screw the one that would have.”

This is the story of one village, but it is common to many villages (and not just with water filters, but all kinds of interventions) around the world, as evidenced by the failure rates here.  His story illustrates some “basic principles of development”, which he describes as:

“1. There is a huge opportunity cost to failure. When you do something stupid, you either a) wreck something that is working or could have worked, or b) or blow the people’s one chance to get anything ever. Once a well is drilled, a clinic built, or a program delivered, an NGO or government official checks a box, and future resources go somewhere else. Failure is worse than nothing [my emphasis].”  Yes, and with many community water projects the residents are required to contribute labor and/or some of the capital costs. They don’t get their money back when the water system fails.

2. Most “training” for end users is useless… If a product or technology intended for consumers requires “training,” it’s probably going to fail.”   There’s a great deal of evidence that community-based water management, without support, will lead to failed services (see here and here). Yet it remains a popular intervention model.

3. It’s all about follow-up. If you can’t provide repair and replacement, if you can’t monitor performance over time, don’t do it. If you can’t make a strong case that, say, two years from now, things will still be working—and in a way that inspires confidence that it will work over the long haul—don’t do it. Stuff breaks in ways you can’t even imagine, people use things in completely unpredictable ways, and unintended consequences rule supreme.”  Enough said.

So this is us speaking up, again, about the need for WASH donors and implementers to change the way we change the world. You can support our work through our most recent campaign here.

Leave a Reply