By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International
Full disclosure: this blog was inspired by a re-run of the TV show “30 Rock” where Liz Lemon finally earns real fame from her skit catchphrase “That’s a dealbreaker, ladies!” The concept was similar to “you must be a redneck if,” with lines like, “If your man practices Jedi moves in the park…that’s a dealbreaker ladies!”
Most of them aren’t LOL-worthy, but it reminded me of many conversations with friends about guys they’ve met. One of my friends went on a date with a guy who was good-looking, had a cool job, and was really nice to her. The dealbreaker? He smoked. Another friend met a guy who was hot and smart, with a sexy accent, but he’s a texter, not a caller.
The list of dealbreakers for me and my friends includes serious and trivial qualities – doesn’t practice same religion, went to rival school, has kids, hates kids, loves cats, smacks his food, lives in prison, lives with mom, wears mom jeans, wears jorts, and so on. It doesn’t matter how wonderful the guy seems to be, one dealbreaker, and well, there’s no deal.
So what does this have to do with water projects in developing countries? I’ve been thinking about dealbreakers for water systems. Just like with relationships, dealbreakers can be a hot topic in the international humanitarian world. I was recently invited to a workshop to build consensus on some common core indicators: what is important for all organizations to measure when monitoring water projects?
In 2010, Water For People proposed a small set of metrics they consider critical for sustainability. These include observable aspects of the built water system as well as financial indicators that relate to the community of people using the water system. I like these – they follow the KISS principle. (KISS = keep it simple, stupid. I didn’t make this up.)
There are some dealbreakers that can be seen or measured. For example, is water flowing? Other dealbreakers are trickier: Is the water source adequate? That is, will there be enough water for this system in the future? Deep wells – holes in the ground that access aquifers (like underground lakes) used to be the ideal source for water because they are usually uncontaminated and reliable for many years. However, as demands increase from humans, farming, and industries, water tables are falling (meaning the wells have to be dug deeper) or becoming contaminated in India, China and even the United States.
Even if the handpump hardware is being maintained, people are paying fees, and women are on the water committee, if there is no water in the well to pump up, that’s a dealbreaker, ladies! Figuring out what’s going on underground can be expensive – but so is replacing a lot of water systems. Predicting risks to water table levels and demand from a growing population is possible with databases like Aqueduct.
Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.” There are likely dealbreakers that trump all the things we could ever measure, such as the presence or absence of “Positive Deviance” folks in a community. This is the observation that in some communities there are certain people or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies help them find better solutions to problems than communities with the same resources and challenges. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an easy way to spot those positive people and get them on board before we built a water project?
We don’t really have enough evidence on which of the many possible measurable or observable qualities matters the most. Or which metrics matter at all. For example, some organizations believe strongly that women need to be represented on community water committees. But a former colleague of mine thinks, after observing successfully functioning water systems where only men are on the committee, that a certain percentage of female members is not critical for sustainability. It’s a fascinating debate.
A simple (but probably not easy or cheap) way to solve this and other debates on metrics could be to apply a set of these indicators to a bunch of old water projects – no matter who built them; maybe across a whole country. We could do an analysis of what the still functioning systems had in common. And what the ones that aren’t working have in common.
This isn’t just a dream: One of the requirements of the core indicator workshop I’ll be attending is that participating organizations will commit to testing them on real projects over five years.
If we knew the two or three deal breakers for water project sustainability, it would make monitoring easier. I’m sure program designers and donors, and maybe even customers would find this information helpful as well.
And once we figure out how to do this for water projects, we can call Match.com and suggest they figure out the dealbreakers for sustainable personal relationships. Or maybe “30 Rock” already took care of that.