Ned Breslin Rethinks Water Aid

Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People, is a self-professed critic of most water and sanitation interventions worldwide — and has set out to challenge longheld assumptions about the role of foreign aid in these projects.

He doesn’t doubt their initial good intentions, but laments the enormous disconnect between these intentions and long-term change. Drilling a water well can save lives, but what happens after the development organization has gone away? “Is the water still flowing,” Breslin asks. Quite often, the answer is no.

Ned Breslin

“Sustainability is NOT measured by how many handpumps you install, how many beneficiaries you(r organization) can claim, or how many microfinance loans have been given out.” Africa, Asia, and South America, Breslin notes, are littered with broken technologies and infrastructures. “ The problem isn’t a lack of good ideas, Breslin says. “The reality is that the developing world is constantly hammered with ideas, but is the intervention happening, and is it happening over time?”

Instead, success needs to be measured where change actually occurs. “Success is if somebody turns on a handpump and water comes out,” Breslin says. To continue using the same development models if there’s no water flowing is replicating failure. In other words, according to Breslin, “You can’t NGO it, but instead sort out what happened in the past and get water flowing again.”

Water for People's FLOW screenshot

This fall, Water for People released a monitoring tool called FLOW, for Field Level Operations Watch. The tool relies on smartphones and global mapping technologies to provide networked information about the state of water and sanitation projects. (Click here for more on the details about how the project works.) The ability to track projects allows organizations and individuals to respond quickly as problems arise. Because this technology promises to provide a clear view of what’s working and what ‘s failing, as well as the ability to track results overtime, Breslin hopes that this tool will make it easier to inject accountability in water development projects.

He also hopes that this effort will pull water project out of the hands of NGOs and into the hands of the people who are most impacted by poor water conditions. And that doing so, will provide a voice to the voiceless.

Breslin’s paper on overhauling hydro-philanthropy can be downloaded here.

(Photo credit: Thatcher Hullerman Cook)

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