Cautionary Tales for Development Folk

January 17, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Back in the 80s, I worked with Neil Macdonald on Central American human rights. Since then he’s been an aid biz all rounder, workign on media, planning, monitoring etc etc. Now entering his greybeard, guru years (actually, he’s had a grey beard for decades), he’s written a rather sweet and Macdonald covereducational set of stories, part anecdote, part parable, about the practice and pitfalls of aid work. Reminds me a bit of Robert Chambers or John Ambler. Some of the best are about getting things wrong, realizing it and putting them right. Here’s a sample. The 40 page book is available in Kindle format.

“Story 14. There has to be a roof

What is a latrine? A hole in the ground. A platform. Walls for privacy. To save costs we didn’t bother with roofs. Nobody was going to spend much time in these dank little huts.

But there we were wrong. It was the women especially who insisted to us that we had to modify the design. There has to be a roof, they said. And of course, a latrine is not just a latrine. For the women especially, this was the one place where they could be alone, freed from the nagging demands of husbands, fathers, children, brothers, and older women. This was their space and their privacy. They wanted to spend as long as they possibly could in the luxury of the latrine. Even when it rained.

We modified the design, and included a roof.

Story 15. There has to be a solid floor

We were building schools. Or more correctly, we were supporting the communities to build their own schools. Schools that would make education accessible to those children who couldn’t walk the ten or more kilometres to school and back or who needed to spend part of their days working. The schools in each community were variants of a standard design that communities could largely make for themselves using locally available materials.

We consulted extensively beforehand on the design. What should a basic primary school look like? We came up with one or two classroom variants, with space for reading corners and for teacher’s needs. Ideally there were two latrines, one for each sex, and washing facilities.

We consulted the children too. We were surprised by what they came up with. Repeatedly they said the floor had to be solid. Spaced planks on a foundation wouldn’t do. We asked why. With equal surprise and withering scorn they told us:

“If we drop our pencils and they fall through cracks in the floor we’ll have to go home and tell our parents we need a new pencil. Pencils cost a lot. They’ll hit us.”

Every one of those schools has a solid floor.

Story 16. Things weren’t the same

It was a big programme. A UN-funded programme to provide standpipes in every village street. No longer would people, most of them women and children, have to trek long distances in the sun and wait hours for their turn at the pump. No longer would they have to walk back over aching kilometres, burdened by canisters of water almost as heavy as they were.

Communities were thrilled. Running water at the end of every street! They could hardly wait for the water engineers to arrive. When the work was done, the communities were delighted. The programme team went from success to success.

Six months later came the follow up visits, the check on how things were going. From village to village the story was the same. Standpipes had been ripped out. People were again walking long distances to the well, and queuing for hours in the sun for water. The project team were bewildered, but could get no clear explanation as to why this was happening. Villagers simply said, “We didn’t like them. Things weren’t the same.”

Eventually a team of researchers was sent in to find out the reasons. It took a lot of investigation. It turned out that fetching water wasn’t simply fetching water. For the women, it was an opportunity, sometimes the only opportunity, to get away from watchful and censuring eyes. It was their privacy. For almost everyone the wait at the wall was not just a wait. This was where news was exchanged, deals done, obligations discharged, marriages arranged. The queue was one of the most important community institutions. But even the communities themselves had been unaware of this.

Building community centres went some way to remedying problem, though this was not enough to address the gender issue.”

January 17, 2014
Duncan Green