18 Sep 2008

It's Complicated

This bit of corporate propaganda is too long, but it makes a good point by accident. The speakers -- guys from ITT and two NGOs that received $3 million from ITT -- discuss how they have to "ask very very hard questions" before they can "solve" local water problems.

They think they are tacking "difficult" tasks because they are trying to modify one-size-fits all "solutions"* to fit local conditions. Although flexibility (customer service!) is second nature to any entrepreneur in a competitive market, it is foreign to the big engineering firms that have installed command and control water infrastructure for government clients during most of their history.

Bottom Line: Most people know what they want. If you want to help, ask them what they want and then do it.

* I still think it's funny when companies sell "solutions" that are actually products. It's not until a product is combined with habits, institutions, modifications, laws, training, etc. that it becomes part of a real solution.


  1. This is Ned Breslin from Water For People, ITT’s partner in the Watermark project. First, I want to thank you for taking us up on our invitation to join us in a dialogue about how to solve these problems.

    David raises some interesting points which we at Water For People would agree with. The challenge with water supply in developing countries is that the sector has applied a “one size fits all” approach for decades and yet sustainability remains elusive. This applies to NGOs, multilateral and bilateral donors, government and the private sector. The approach is largely based on the view that rural communities are islands on their own. Communities just need to be “capacitated” so that they can operate, manage, repair and replace their water systems over time.

    Truth is that this model does not work – that communities are part of much larger ecosystems and economies, and that any community can tell you want they want, but that does not mean that the intervention will necessarily be successful.

    Communities all over the world want improved water supply, and want technologies that are affordable and easy to manage, maintain, operate and repair. I know many communities that wanted and received a handpump only to find that, over time, parts needed to be purchased to keep the handpump operational.

    Water For People, in partnership with ITT, is raising hard questions about this approach, and asking difficult questions on impact – questions that rarely get asked. Is the water system functioning as signed 10-15 years after installation? How long are water points inoperable due to financial, managerial or technical problems? Are latrines actually being used as intended? Who benefits and who does not and why? Can we strategically build sector capacity – not just community capacity – but also local private sector, civil society and local governmental capacity so that communities can access support as they need to keep their systems running?

    These are questions that have generally not been asked in the sector, and questions that are at the forefront of the ITT/Water For People partnership.

    Ned Breslin
    Water For People

  2. Ned,

    Thanks for your comment. When you say "Truth is that this model does not work – that communities are part of much larger ecosystems and economies, and that any community can tell you want they want, but that does not mean that the intervention will necessarily be successful" in response for my bottom line, you imply that communities do not know (or consider) implications that outsiders do know and do take into consideration. Assuming that this POV is not a form of condescension, how do you know that you are right? After all, many communities have been adversely affected by well-intentioned, condescending donors (and central governments!)

    So, in lieu of a "I say, you say" debate, I suggest that WfP/ITT try a few different things (randomized intervention!):
    1) Give the $$ to the community and let them decide (town meetings and/or leadership decision) how to spend it -- no restrictions.
    2) Give $$, but they have to choose from the donor's menu of spending options.
    3) Donate your choice of project to a community.
    4) Facilitate a discussion on community investment (no $$) -- just to see what they want to/can do with their own resources.
    5) etc.

    As you may know, I am an advocate of flexibility and more than one size-fits-all, so there's probably a good chance that each of these options works the "best" in some places and the worst in others.

  3. ps/I note that WfP's founders came from the engineering side (Black + Veach, AWWA), a side that's excellent at getting things done and notoriously bad at dealing with "soft" issues (economics, anthropology, sociology). Thus, my fear of command and control "solutions."

  4. Ned sent me this link wrt the comment just above. As careful readers will note, I did not *say* that WfP was going command and control; I just said that I was worried about it. Those who read the link will see that Ned is well-aware of "imposed" problems.

    So, we're on the same page...


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