By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International
Thanks to the apocalyptic predictions about Hurricane Irene, this past weekend I did an unnecessary evacuation out of Manhattan to my friend Pat’s house in New Jersey. After we realized the news channels had nothing new to say, we had plenty of time to talk. Pat, who is a doctor, is one of the smartest people I know. He’s a good dad and really cares about improving people’s lives in a very direct way.
He asked about my new organization, Improve International, and why I’d decided to start it. He and his wife have supported water projects through a well known organization, so he is interested in the topic (he wasn’t just being nice).
I told him about the high rate of water project failures (30-50%). I see an opportunity for Improve International to help organizations and donors learn and innovate based on mistakes, instead of ignoring them.
Then he asked a show-stopping question: “Why does it matter if the water project fails? Isn’t it okay to improve the quality of someone’s life even for a few years?” Now, I realize I’m not the best person to answer that question. It would be more appropriate to ask the person in the community in Honduras or India or Rwanda what she thinks. But because we were stuck in the house, sick of watching the news, I gave it a shot.
First I tried to think of other examples that might compare. Would it be okay if a Habitat for Humanity house collapsed after a few years?
Then I compared feedback loops. Pat’s patients can choose their service provider. They have a good idea that they will get good service because the hospital is accredited by a national body. Each doctor has to have a license, and can be board-certified. As a surgeon, Pat can determine by direct observation that he has fixed the patient’s problem. The patient can come back to him for follow-up. And she can give him a great review on Angie’s List.
When it comes to water and sanitation projects in developing countries, the feedback loop is twisted. In this case the customer is a person living in a community that needs a safe water system. She usually doesn’t get to choose her provider (the humanitarian organization), rarely has input on the type of system, and has no recourse if it breaks. The humanitarian organization, fighting for scarce resources, often is torn between the needs and wants of the community and the donor’s requirements, which sometimes leads to inappropriate technology, or a rushed project to finish within the one- or two-year time frame the donor set.
Often you will see the name of the donor or the organization that built the system prominently displayed on the hand pump or on a large sign in the community. I’ve never seen a toll-free number to call with complaints. (To be fair, some organizations are now trying to build up the local availability of plumbers /mechanics or so-called circuit riders who come by regularly to maintain or repair the system.)
The news channels started talking about a dam in upstate New York that could collapse, so we got distracted. Here are a few more things I would have liked to tell Pat.
Failed water projects have effects on health: A child who is born into a community with safe water and then has to drink water from an unsafe source — well, just think how dehydrated and weak you get with just a day of diarrhea and vomiting from the flu. Diarrhea is particularly dangerous for children under 5. If it doesn’t kill them, it can lead to chronic malnutrition.
Failed water projects are a waste of money and other resources: Communities who are supposed to benefit from the water project often contribute money, time, and difficult labor like ditch digging and carrying heavy supplies. Each household in the community might have paid a water fee each month. When the water system fails, the community members don’t get their money back. And these are people who make $1 – $2 a day. And communities are often required to “engage” by forming a water committee, attending meetings, participating in hygiene training, and so on, all in addition to their subsistence farming.
I’ve been to many communities where there was more than one broken water system. Each time someone in the US has to raise money for a new system for that same community, we can assume that roughly 25% of that goes to fundraising, salaries, other overhead. There’s already a limited amount of philanthropy out there, so wouldn’t it be more efficient to build systems that last through generations instead of replacing broken systems?
False advertising: Some organizations say, “$20 saves a life” or “your contribution provides water for life.” If a water system breaks down in a few years, that’s not a lifetime of safe water. Donors rarely hear back about whether a project they supported failed. And I’m pretty sure donors never get a refund.
Demoralizing: Communities throw a big party to celebrate the first day the safe water flows in the community. Donors love to see those photos and videos. So imagine the disappointment of the woman a few years after the party when water stops coming out of the tap outside her home. Now she has to pick up the jug and walk back to the river where the cows shit to get water for her family. She can’t send a picture of that to the donors. She can’t pick up the phone and ask for the humanitarian organization to come fix the system.
Maybe if we could fix the feedback loop there would be more rewards and incentives for building water projects that last. Wouldn’t it be neat if there were something like Yelp or Angie’s List where customers could leave a review of their experience with whoever built their water system or toilets? This could be complemented by a place with objective data on project functionality over time. I think there’s a better chance of that happening than ever knowing for sure where a hurricane is going and what it’s going to do when it gets there.