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January 17, 2014

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January 17, 2014

Cautionary Tales for Development Folk

January 17, 2014
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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.”


  1. Lovely post and I was looking forward to reading the book on my kindle the next time I had a long plane flight…but only available from Amazon UK.

  2. Oh thats nice, I also used to work with Neil on Central America back in the 1980’s. Nice to hear he has been squirreling away all that amassed wisdom. (and another good thing – Central American people in general are now better off in various ways than back in the 70’s and 80’s)

  3. Brings to mind the debate on measuring impact that you carried a year ago. An experimentalist approach would have to take into account the institutional dynamics which even the communities themselves were unaware of. Clearly there were missed steps in design. In the 1990s, Zambia implemented a European Union and World Bank funded social fund. Communities, upon meeting requirements (one of which was to contribute 25 percent of the cost in kind), were given funds to implement their self-selected social projects. One community elected to use the funds to repair a water facility. In justifying their application, the community had argued that fixing the water facility would protect families from drawing dirty water from a crocodile infested river. When the time came to make contributions, the community’s committee was unable to secure the support that was required. However, when a witch/wizard finder showed up and claimed that he could purge the community of its witches and wizards members contributed money (a sizable amount given their circumstances) not once but twice. The moral of the story is that what communities truly need is not always self apparent.

  4. I was 6 years at the AIDS Alliance in Brighton, then 5 years at VSO (Advocacy team) and now I’m at RESULTS UK (health advocacy). Yes the years are passing, but I don’t have a grey beard yet….

  5. Messages these stories bring out need not be confined to development folks. Understanding both,the need for ” privacy ” as well as the necessity to “socialise ” is central to understanding diverse human needs in equally divergent community settings.One may not always be right from the word “go “; sometimes you need to “err “to get things right.

  6. Great stories! A perfect reminder of how important it is to settle in and become a community member first before trying to implement change (even when desperately needed).

  7. These stories highlight why gender should be addressed at the design phase of development project, instead of as an after thought. Sigh, but things are changing, and a new approach that involves applying a “gender lens” to every aspect of development is gaining attention.

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