Water Pumps
Water Projects: The Harm Caused by Well-meaning Philanthropists Back to the list
Posted: 1-8-2007
Page: 303

Ned Breslin
Denver, Colorado

I first met Dona Fatima while driving on a terrible road in northern Mozambique. 
My Mozambican water sector colleagues and I were always able to find water points in passing villages because we drove so slowly on deeply rutted roads.

Dona Fatima, a woman who appeared to be over 50 years old but could easily have been much younger, was crying next to a broken handpump. Dona Fatima was “responsible” for this water system, installed 15 months earlier by a group of well meaning people from the United States who decided to “solve” this community’s water problem.

The group of philanthropists had come, done a “needs assessment”, returned to the United States, raised funds, designed the system in the US, returned to Mozambique and installed a handpump. They had “trained” Dona Fatima and a few other women to maintain the pump, although the duration of the philanthropists visit to the community was short. The philanthropists had to return to their jobs and Universities, so this project had to be completed quickly. The project was guided by the philanthropists’ agendas and time frames, not the community’s. Despite their best intentions, the philanthropists had not, in the end, solved the community’s water problem.

Tragically, they had increased problems in the village, as community members could not understand why those trained to repair the water system had failed. Dona Fatima, in her eyes and in the eyes of the community, let this community down. People were back in the river fetching water. People were angry with Dona Fatima. She was scared.

The reality is Dona Fatima had done nothing wrong. Sound development practice understands that it is impossible to successfully install a water system in the way that this group of well-meaning philanthropists had attempted. Water systems are rarely (dare I suggest almost never) about “good design” as well meaning philanthropists understand that term.

As anyone who actually works in the field will tell you, the designs are all pretty simple, well understood in-country and capacity to design is always available in-country. That capacity is never used by US-based philanthropists who want to “get their hands dirty”. Dona Fatima’s story is a sadly common one. In 16 years in southern Africa I saw her tragedy repeated over and over again, as well meaning philanthropists who want to actually do the work fly in at a record pace, leaving with great experiences for themselves and to the loud applause of cheering and grateful community members, only to have their efforts wasted in the end as the projects fail.

The saddest irony of this is that few of the people who came to “solve” the community’s problems actually come back to see if the systems are operational. Philanthropists of this nature do not monitor their work, they simply move on to the next community. Yet water project failure is the hidden elephant in the room among water sector professionals Africa in particular is littered with well intentioned efforts that have gone array. Sound water sector development is more challenging than other development challenges.

For instance, Rotary has been extremely successful at eradicating polio worldwide and this health challenge is extremely conducive to direct, hands-on experience. A Rotarian from Michigan can easily visit an area and drop the medicine in a child’s mouth. Successful water supply work is not so easy, as anyone who works in the water sector will tell you.

Evidence from around the world shows quite clearly that water supply takes a great deal of time, requires constant community engagement to address issues of finance, community dynamics and water systems management. Successful water projects require a view of the wider environment beyond the community that is crucial to water supply success access to affordable spares, access to technical support that the community can draw upon when challenges emerge beyond the community’s capacity (as always happens), and good understandings of sector policies, practices, and strategies.

Finally, water resource management has become crucial, proving that no community is an island on its own, but part of a wider dynamic that is not so easy to solve on a few visits to the community. The challenge appears to be this how do you tap the great enthusiasm and wonderful intentions of people in the United States who want to help and want to get their hands dirty when the approach that they consistently use to this work is so clearly wrong? Why is it that no credible agency involved in water supply whether NGO, bilateral/ multilateral donor or private sector company follows such an implementation strategy, and what does that mean for the approach to implementation so commonly followed by those wanting to get their hands dirty?

How can philanthropists be held accountable for their work, and what are the consequences of project failure on those who, despite the best intentions, leave people like Dona Fatima by the side of the road crying? It is these challenges, and not the challenges of water system design or finance, that activist philanthropists should be addressing first, before they decide to step in and “solve” a community’s problems.

For the original article, see www.onphilanthropy.com/site/News2