The word sustainability is becoming so overused these days, and it seems to be losing some of its impact and importance. The truth is if you are giving aid without some consideration for the long-term success of the project, you run the risk of doing more harm than good.
I’m not talking about emergency relief aid where the focus is on immediately saving lives. However, the approach needs to be different when it comes to rebuilding and poverty alleviation.
Take for instance northern Uganda, which has become an aid hotspot in recent years. This area was caught up in a brutal 21-year guerrilla war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Beginning in 2007, when the LRA was driven into the DRC and CAR, people began returning to their villages and global aid started pouring into this region.
Although I do not doubt that this aid is necessary and well intended, many of these interventions run the risk of creating an environment of dependence with their easy-and-free approach. After all, who wouldn’t want a new, free borehole when the one that was installed two years ago is proving to be problematic? This results in an over-saturation of boreholes in some areas, while other villages drink from contaminated, hand-dug wells infested with deadly bacteria and parasites.
Over the past few years, I have seen a staggering number of broken and abandoned boreholes. This is the dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about. It’s almost as if organizations see it as some sort of failure on their part if their hand pumps don’t work forever, but that’s not where the failure lies.
Hand pumps are going to break. Nothing that we use every day can last forever without problems. Our cars break down, our sinks & toilets clog up, our computers crash.
That said, to go into a village where there are no skilled workers and expect them to somehow miraculously know how to take care of things, is just irresponsible.
Providing aid without adequate capacity building is a recipe for failure. It is crucial to engage the stakeholders in these projects from the onset. If you don’t, you are likely to be wasting your donor’s money. We’re experimenting with a number of different tactics to address the issue and so far, have found two key strategies that seem to be working.
One approach is to train Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) in conjunction with the water points.VSLAs are a more evolved variation of the standard Water User Committee. It’s a fact that sustaining Water User Committees is challenging. We have found that a more successful strategy is to monetize the approach and provide a rewarding incentive to stay involved.
VSLAs utilize a very-structured system of saving, borrowing and lending village contributions that is simple enough to verbally explain that even illiterate members can easily understand. Any money borrowed must to be used for income-generating activities and all decisions must be made by the group. Once a year the interest earned is divided among the association, based on the amount each person has contributed.
This works well for borehole sustainability because a discussion of the water point and collection of water user fees are a mandatory part of every meeting. This ensures that funds are available, in a public account, for maintenance and repairs of borehole. The fact that community members are also being empowered to start small businesses with the funds from the VSLA is just an added benefit.
Another effective strategy we’ve found for sustainability is insisting on a significant upfront investment from the stakeholders. This investment can be monetary but more often it is broken down into materials or services. Although the ability to contribute to these projects varies from community to community, there has to be some system in place to involve the beneficiary.
For our part, we provide stakeholders with a list of options for meeting their commitment. We place a value on certain materials and labor so the community can decide how they want to invest in the project. We only ask for an amount we know they are capable of providing.
We’ve found that the overall key to success is fostering a sense of ownership, which comes from engaging the stakeholders. They have to actively work with you on the project. Everyone involved needs to see the project for what it is – a collaboration between the community and the aid facilitator. It takes more time, money and follow-up to do things this way, but in the end the beneficiaries feel a greater commitment to the project. This translates into effective maintenance, long-term sustainability and an increased likelihood of success.