Sometimes fairy tales lead to nightmares

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By Susan Davis, Executive Director

Last week, at a conference organized by college students, I spoke about lessons learned in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). One of the key points was that “it’s not about the project.”  The WASH sector is plagued by fragmented approaches and one-off projects. Small projects don’t have much of a chance of achieving systemic change, even at the community level. Yet many groups treat water projects like romantic movies – replacing the wedding with the ribbon cutting or photo shoot for the water point at the end of the project.  The caption under the photograph of the cute kids drinking clean water might as well say: “And then they lived happily ever after.”

happily ever afterBut still high percentages of water systems fail, latrine pits fill up or aren’t used at all, and very few people continue to wash their hands regularly after the program is over. Current interventions are occasionally effective in getting households to invest in toilets and hand washing devices, but several studies show these one-time efforts are not effective in ensuring long-term behavior change.

The sad news for international development is that the trend is to focus on small grassroots interventions, according to recent research described in The Stories That NGOs Tell (by Adrienne Day, SSIR Fall 2014; subscription required).  “In 1990, there were about 900 US-founded nonprofit organizations that provided international development aid. Since then, more than 10,000 such non-governmental organizations have entered the field.” Most of these new organizations “were started by people who are neither international development professionals nor trained aid workers, and are sustained by volunteers rather than paid staff members, according to Allison Schnable, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Princeton University.”

Many new, smaller organizations, understandably, are impatient with so-called large, bureaucratic institutions, according to Schnable: “Their idea seems to be that you have to provide these services now, develop these sorts of people now, and the rest will come later.” But, Schnable pointed out that groups that focus on immediately and directly “providing goods and services often unintentionally compromise broader goals because they undermine the growth of local institutions and they lack a blueprint for long-term sustainable development.”

Ann Swidler, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that newer grassroots organizations “often neglect factors—like political corruption and lack of physical infrastructure— that stand in the way of development. Well-intentioned volunteers and donors also assume that they can transform people simply by educating or ‘enlightening’ them about better ways to live. Most do not provide the sort of consistent, long-term material support that might really change people’s lives.”

When there’s a good chance that happily-ever-after for the NGO might turn into a nightmare for the people they are trying to help, why do we keep believing in fairy tales?

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