A big buzzword in the development world for the past several decades has been “sustainability”.
It’s the basic concept that the effects of an initiative to improve the lives of people in developing countries will last long after the initial money for that initiative has dried up, and after all the people who thought it up have gone home and on to other things.
It’s the idea behind the saying: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” It’s a concept that has tried to take the thinking around helping people in developing countries one step past the idea of the handout. (see previous post: https://whatyoumightbemissing.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/give-me-money-the-battle-against-handouts/)
In the water development sector, the concept of Community Based Management (CBM) emerged to improve sustainability after people realised that simply drilling lots of new wells in developing countries just led to a-lot of broken-down well pumps a few years later. Someone figured that if communities were given a 5 day training on how to maintain the well-pump, and told that it was now their pump and their responsibility to raise money to pay for spare parts, that this would have a long-term effect on the functioning of that well.
30+ years later a huge number of pumps still break down without getting repaired, while it’s a well established criteria that every single development project have a component involving sustainability considerations. (Probably along with considerations of several other well established or latest development concepts that have also been reduced to buzzwords.)
Another idea was to select and train individuals on how to repair the pumps in their area for profit as a small business. Then call them Area Mechanics, give them some tools, a bicycle, and then leave them to solve the problem of all the broken down pumps.
The failure behind all of these ideas is that they are based on one-time or time-bounded investment and input. This type of projectized approach results in project implementers being long gone when things start to go wrong.
One year after a community receives CBM training, when the pump first breaks down, no one in the community remembers the training they had, and if any money was ever raised for spare parts, it has been all used up for other emergencies.
Six months after the Area Mechanic is trained, he’s completely demotivated because very few communities have money to pay for his services, or even for the spare parts they need for him to do a free repair.
A long time after the establishment of CBM training, some other project comes by and repairs all the broken boreholes for free, erasing any sense of community ownership, and taking away any potential work from the Area Mechanic.
The issue of broken down pumps goes far beyond the lack of knowledge of how to do repairs or lack of community ownership for the pump. It’s very complex with many layers and factors. These types of problems can’t be solved by a projectized approach.
With complex problems in complex systems the idea of a “Sustainable Project” is pretty much an oxymoron. The real solution involves continuously improving the system, and changing it in such a way that the system can sustain itself.
That’s why EWB is focusing on assisting the government institutions whose responsibility it is to make sure everyone in the country has access to clean drinking water forever (or at least until the system completely changes). The permanent institutions that will continuously monitor the functionality of pumps, the responsible individuals who should be repairing them, and make sure that the system is set-up for those individuals to be able to continue doing their jobs.
If you support this approach to development please consider donating to EWB. Go to the following website: https://perspectives.ewb.ca/jordandaniow and click on “Donate Now”.