Learning from the Water Crisis of Our Making

The world is facing a water and sanitation crisis, but not the one you think. True, nearly 900 million people lack clean water and 2.5 billion lack a safe toilet, but perhaps the greater tragedy is that decades of efforts by philanthropists and NGOs have been pursued in such a short-sighted way that today many of the poorest regions of the world are littered with broken hand pumps and failed latrines—an enduring reminder of promise unfulfilled. Of the 600,000 to 800,000 hand pumps installed in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years, approximately one third fail prematurely, according to the International Water and Sanitation Centre in the Netherlands, a total failed investment of more than $1 billion.

Ned Breslin, the CEO of the nonprofit Water For People, caused a stir in January when he published a critique of water and sanitation development practices titled “Rethinking Hydro-Philanthropy.” Breslin argues that donors, NGOs, and local governments are letting down the people they serve by refusing to properly evaluate their work and confront past mistakes.

“Africa, Asia and Latin America have become wastelands for broken water and sanitation infrastructure,” Breslin writes. “Go to schools throughout developing countries and you will often find a broken hand pump around the corner, or a disused latrine that filled years ago. Sector agencies intuitively know this but the general public is shielded from these hard truths as perceptions of failure could threaten ‘the cause’ of reaching the unserved. Poor people do not benefit from this disingenuity.”

The pump pictured above was not maintained by the NGO that installed it nor was a successful plan made for it to be maintained by residents. In order to access water, the residents broke through the top (called the cement apron) and now adults and children alike dangerously hover over the edge to dip in their jugs. Image by Julia Lewis, courtesy of Water for People.

For water and sanitation development projects to have a chance of succeeding, Breslin says, the sector must move from short-term to long-term thinking, from charity work to sustainable development. Local governments must invest their own money in development projects to create a sense of ownership. Philanthropists must form more substantial relationships with development agencies and apply their business expertise when choosing and monitoring the projects. Above all, organizations must honestly evaluate their projects over time.

I interviewed Breslin over e-mail about his ideas and how they are being received in development circles.

How did you decide to write your article?

I lived and worked in Africa for close to 20 years and spent well over half my time there rehabilitating failed water projects and poorly designed sanitation initiatives. People received clean water, celebrations ensued, photos were taken, and then the NGO or volunteer group would return to the U.S. or Europe and never learn that the project they had installed failed. I have a good friend whose child died because, after first tasting clean water when weaned from his mother’s breast, his body could not cope when the water supply broke and the family returned to the polluted source they had hoped was abandoned forever.

So I decided to write this piece because I believe the water and sanitation sector has misdiagnosed the challenge. Yes, there are hundreds of millions, even billions of people who do not have clean water, but this is also because we as a sector have not done particularly well at providing lasting solutions. We constantly see the pictures of women or girls scooping water from a muddy puddle, but what we don’t see is that they often walked past broken hand pumps and taps to get to that puddle. This is not acceptable, and is lost on the public and philanthropists who are being fed a somewhat inaccurate story of the crisis.

The real crisis is that the investments we have made in water and sanitation have not succeeded in transforming lives through sustained water supply and sanitation services. And, sadly, poor people around the world will not benefit from new campaigns or larger amounts of aid until we acknowledge that hard reality and take meaningful steps to change the way we work.

You write that evaluation is essential to improving development work, but why isn’t meaningful evaluation already in place? Have organizations resisted it? Or did evaluation never seem as urgent as their day-to-day work? What will it take to change people’s minds?

Most organizations are required to complete evaluations as a condition of their grants. You get a 5-year grant, and at the end you “evaluate” it to see if it worked. But we are confusing a bureaucratic necessity with what evaluations should be—learning opportunities to see what worked over time, what did not work as planned, and what we as a sector (not just an individual organization) can do better in the future.

Few do this. Few are willing to look back and learn. And even fewer are willing to publish this information for fear of “bad” results leading to a cut in funding. Many put up smokescreens. They argue that long-term monitoring and evaluation cost money they don’t have. Or they argue that the exercise would be pointless because evaluation methods are inadequate. This is rubbish—people can allocate funding if they want, and the commonly used indicators (water flow, down time, cash on hand) are straightforward and revealing.

Truth is, a change is coming, because philanthropists want to know what happened to their investments. This is welcome, because it will change the culture of short-term thinking and force organizations that make claims about saving people’s lives to prove it. This will lead to dramatic change on the ground.

Why is it important to invest local authorities with financial responsibility for a project? Why isn’t operational responsibility enough?

I believe that projects are far more successful if all players—most importantly local government and households—have a financial stake in the outcome. My experience is that projects that are offered to communities with no up-front local financial contributions tend to falter rather quickly. If a family has to make a choice between an improved water supply and other expenses, and they decide to pay for the water, then I know this really matters to them. Some say that people are too poor to pay. That is not my experience, and I have worked in some of the poorest places on the planet. Of course, people in complete crisis should never pay—refugees, victims of political violence or natural disasters. But in relatively stable places, payment matters.

Local governments need to pay because they can afford it, and they should not be absolved of their responsibilities toward their citizenry. Many water-sector advocates argue that we need more foreign aid to reach UN Millennium Development Goal targets. I think this is debatable.

I have seen really remarkable work where local governments and communities pay for their water supplies. What I love most is that they never claim the project is Water For People’s project. We may get a quiet nod, but they are celebrating their investments, their project. The pride is unbelievable! So often we see people as passive recipients of benevolent aid when in fact they are active agents of change—as we see every day. They plan the work, they implement the project, they pay for their water supplies, they develop lifeline tariffs for people who cannot afford the cost for a variety of reasons (orphans, grandparents with no outside support) and they rightly claim victory.

What obstacles prevent the right kinds of partnerships from being formed between philanthropists and development agencies? How will both sides have to change to make these collaborations work? Do philanthropists really want to engage in the work of the nonprofits they support?

I am not entirely sure of the answer to these great questions. I guess my experience is that there are quite a few forward-thinking philanthropists who are looking for opportunities to think differently. These people and foundations really understand that change is needed. They like to think in terms of leverage rather than charity. And they tend to think about how business can play a constructive role in solving development problems. This is great! NGOs need to change, as I suggested above, to think in more long-term and creative ways.

Let me give you an example. We have a supporter who is a really interesting and innovative thinker. His financial support is critical, but we get a great deal from him that is non-financial that matters even more. He is helping us think through more creative strategies and asking hard questions about impact, and we are getting better as a result. We have support from another foundation—the Case Foundation is remarkable. They are really forward thinkers and have helped us improve in so many ways, all with an eye to ensuring that investments last, accountability is enhanced, and lessons are learned. They are playing a key role in transforming the way we track work over time.

Both examples are of people and foundations who want more than just a project and a plaque—they want to change the way the world works for the better and see water and sanitation as foundational. These are game-changing philanthropists. We welcome that! There are lots of philanthropists out there who do not want this massive engagement, and that is great, too. My hope is that they just ask harder questions about long-term impact and not fall for the ridiculously simplistic “$25 saves a life” without countering with, “Show me how you came to that figure—show me the people you helped years ago who have been saved by a $25 investment.”

How have people in water and sanitation development been reacting to your article?

I am thrilled to report that the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Field staff, people on the ground who work for a variety of organizations, have really responded well. They want to make a leap to longer-term programming and understand the consequences of failed water and sanitation projects most acutely. A number of nonprofits have taken this paper and used it to rethink their metrics, and that is great. I have noticed that some organizations are now starting to say, “These are our long-term metrics.” I do not at all think this is because of our work at Water For People or my article, but I smile at this step and think it’s beautiful!

I have had some negative feedback—basically saying that this piece paints a negative picture of the sector, and even though it is largely accurate, the sector has considerable momentum with USAID and others, so we need to stay positive. This strikes me as sad. It’s basically saying, let’s continue to tweak programs and improve them but shield the world from our dirty laundry so we can get more money. This sounds like people trying to save their jobs, not worrying about transforming lives and being held accountable for how they engage in people’s lives around the world. I have no tolerance for this viewpoint.

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