There’s a Fine, Fine Line…

This post isn’t about a pump, but rather it’s about our project as a whole and how we fit into modern development theory.  Fear not, it will be much more interesting than it sounds :-).  We begin with a story:

I was up at Keur Andallah with Emily working on pump 7 and we had some free time so we got to talking.  There are a LOT of NGO’s working in Senegal and while some do great work, others really don’t.  We won’t name names, but essentially we were talking about an NGO with very specific goals as to numbers of people helped.  Much like 52 pumps, the number is part of the name.  I started criticizing this and saying how irresponsible it is to be so focused on a specific number rather than really helping people:  it becomes about the data rather than the people and the funders, however genuine their desire to help, get caught up in this as well and reward groups that may not really be doing any long-term good at all simply because 1,000 sounds better than 100, and so on.

At this point Emily told me that I had better stop right there and consider my own project.  I had to eat my words and she was absolutely right.  52 pumps in 52 weeks has a critical flaw and its right there in the name.  Now before you pack up your checkbooks and head elsewhere hear me out.  It’s a flaw only if we try to hide it and deny it.  Water Charity has graciously pledged to help us fund 52 pumps, and I am 100% confident that we will hit that number.  It’s the 52 weeks figure that may be a little less achievable.  To do this project right we need to spend a lot of time selecting the right sites, training technicians, following up when things go wrong, and maintaining the people as the main focus rather than the number or the time-frame.  Some pumps take longer than others and that’s ok.  Holding people accountable to a fixed schedule when circumstances change encourages spotty performance and self-preserving behavior.  I don’t know if you’ve ever tried working in a third world country but things can go wrong fast for a multitude of reasons.  For example as I write this I’m recovering from a bout of what looks to have been Dengue Fever.  We won’t be sure until the blood work comes back, but whatever it was it knocked me out of commission for a solid week.  If you were wondering why pump #7 was pretty late to get posted this week, and still hasn’t been completed, this is why. Alas, such is life in Peace Corps West Africa.

Enough about me though, now to the title: There’s a Fine, Fine Line.  In the development world there’s a delicate balance between honest critical scrutiny of projects, and then what we do to promote those projects to the public in order to secure funding.  There is so much competition nowadays for donations that it’s tempting to become more of a salesman than pure development worker.  Within the development system smaller NGO’s become salesmen to the big donor agencies, within the Peace Corps PCV’s become salesmen to our friends, families, and communities.  This constant battle for funding means that in promoting our projects we tend to gloss over the problems in favor of making everything sound nice and tidy.  This approach, while helpful in the short term, is not as harmless as it sounds.  As I mentioned before there are some NGO’s that really don’t do good work; donors should be able to know whether or not their money is actually going to something worthwhile or if it’s just being wasted.  This is a two way street however and as much as NGO’s need to be honest and not misrepresent themselves and their projects, donors need to ask the critical questions, and reward those organizations that ARE doing the right thing, even if sometimes the right thing is admitting failure.  Beware of any organization that touts their numbers above all else and claims perfection.  They’re probably selling you snake oil.

The moral of the story is, don’t be fooled by the numbers.  10,000 isn’t necessarily better than 1,000, 5 pumps could have just as much impact as 52, and your $100 in the right hands could do more direct good than $1,000 somewhere else.  Water Charity and their Appropriate Projects initiative have proven this time and time again and we are honored to be learning from their model and doing our best to make a grassroots impact that will last long into the future.

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About garrisonharward

I am currently working for the US Peace Corps as a Sustainable Agriculture Extension Agent in Senegal. For the next 2 years I will be living in the small village of Dassilame Serere just north of the Gambia. I have no idea what this adventure will bring, but if nothing else it will make for entertaining reading!
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One Response to There’s a Fine, Fine Line…

  1. Randy Harward says:

    So true. Thanks for the honesty. I now feel even better about helping with the pump project.

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