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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ethiopia: A ‘Simple Repair’ is Success Beyond Measure

A professor from McGill who recently traveled to Ethiopia to evaluate our work helping the poor to develop clean water systems in their villages observed something that he found very encouraging.

When a tap on a system broke, the villagers organized someone to leave the village, purchase a replacement in the correct model, and install it upon his or her return. Of course that’s what they did, you might be saying. But this simple act of repairing a tap demonstrated something profound, a milestone that the community had reached in the non-linear and often-bewildering journey out of chronic poverty. They might have gotten their water system installed but never reached this milestone and then in five to ten years time they would be a community with a broken-down system and a sense of poverty more firmly entrenched than ever.

Jeffery Matuella writes an illuminating article for the publication D+C about the kind of ‘development’ that can lead to an even deeper kind of poverty. He describes a community called Bluefield in Nicaragua who resists tackling the problem of contaminated water by investing into an enterprise that would produce ceramic filters and teach poor people how to use them. 

As it turns out, the community was turned off of the idea because UNICEF at one point chose to import filters from the United States and distribute them to everybody in Bluefield. UNICEF did not teach people how to use the filters and, as Matuella writes “[they] gave the people very little incentive to actually use the filters. People value things in proportion to the sacrifice they invested to obtain them. The filters were likely perceived to be worth exactly what the recipients paid in effort and money: nothing.” Like manna from heaven, the filters came raining down on the people of Bluefield. And UNICEF did little to dispel the notion of aid organizations as God-like, vast in their power, arbitrary and mysterious in their doings. The filters eventually broke or were discarded and the reaction, by and large, was shrugging. So when a clean-water plan that required greater ownership and local initiative was presented to the people, they rejected it. Why? They had been made to believe that a ‘clean water’ initiative was something that big, powerful, aid organizations did—not they themselves—and because these initiatives were shown to ‘not work’ and not be worth the effort.

In the Ethiopian districts where we help villages to access clean water, the actual clean water technology is distributed more slowly than it would be if we poured 100% of our manpower and energy and focus into ‘building systems’. The water system in Ethiopia — just like the ceramic filter in Nicaragua — is only the tip of the iceberg. In order for this technology to be of any use at all, it must be accompanied by social investment. The people themselves construct the systems—it is clear to them that the systems are valuable because they have paid for them in sweat and sacrifice. They are carefully taught how to use and maintain them. And HOPE International Development Agency only enters a community to help install a system if the people have invited us—we only help out with what the people specifically ask us to help out with. They want clean water—we don’t tell them to want it.

So when we hear about systems being faithfully maintained and repaired, we know that our efforts to help have not been in vain. We know that these Ethiopian villagers are tackling the real root of poverty — the mentality that insists they are not capable of saving themselves. 

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