By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International
The big picture
I just watched this great animated video by IRC that simply explains the concept of life cycle costs for water systems:The first minute of the video depicts a common practice where a development organization (NGO A) installs a water system. When it breaks, no-one can fix it. After a while, another development organization (NGO B) comes in and installs another water system, or fixes (rehabilitates) the old one. Rehabilitating a system is often very inexpensive and thus is quite popular in large programs. For example, a colleague told me that 68% of the systems in a large multi-country program were rehabilitations.
The true story
This video reminded me of a recent conversation over lunch with a friend who is a fundraiser for a development organization (let’s call them NGO B). She told me about a donor who recently supported a project to rehabilitate two boreholes in Kenya. “He is very rigorous,” she said. The donor was asking questions about how NGO B knew that the boreholes wouldn’t fail again in the future. He asked whether NGO B would continue to monitor the water services provided by these boreholes into the future. NGO B said “We can only do that if you give us money to monitor over time.” My friend didn’t mention whether they gave a cost estimate for services monitoring, but said the NGO B staff in Kenya didn’t really want to encourage this; because what if they moved to a new area, and it was difficult to get to the boreholes to monitor them? The donor still gave the funds. I suggested that NGO B could give the donor’s name and address to the community, so they could let him know if they were still getting water services. She laughed.
The imaginary conversation
Here’s how I imagine the conversation went with this donor:
Donor: I’m happy to help people get safe water, but I’m curious: why did the boreholes fail?
NGO B: Because the other organization who built them did not train the community to maintain the handpump / or there were no spare parts available / or there was no money to pay for the repairs.
Donor: Why didn’t the first development organization fix the problem?
NGO B: They probably didn’t know about it. If they did know about it, they probably would say that to fix those systems would be encouraging dependency in the community.
Donor: In that case, wouldn’t my funding your rehabilitation of these boreholes count as encouraging dependency?
NGO B: [Silence]
Donor: Why didn’t the community fix it?
NGO B: They didn’t have ownership and/or the skills to fix the problem.
Donor: Why didn’t the local government entity help them?
NGO B: They considered it the problem of the development organization.
Donor: I’m not feeling so great about this. Have you done “rehabilitations” like this before?
NGO B: Yes, lots. Trust us.
Donor: And are all those systems still working?
NGO B: Oh we don’t know. We don’t have money to do monitoring after the projects end. But trust us, we know what we’re doing. We do lots of rehabilitations.
Donor: Well, what if I gave you money to do that monitoring?
NGO B: Well, trust us, we think your money would be better spent on providing access to people who need safe water.
Donor: But how do you know that they will continue to have safe water?
NGO B: [looking hurt] Don’t you trust us?
Donor: Okay, here’s a check.
NGO B: [celebration]
I suppose this donor, who owns a large successful business, decided to just trust the organization. The NGO didn’t give him many options. But I wonder if learning about the failure statistics for water systems would cure his addiction to trust?