Sunday, January 31, 2010

Innovation vs. the Boring Stuff

Over the last year or so, I’ve encountered a tremendous push for innovation in the fields of development and disaster relief. Organizations big and small are looking for the ideas that will catapult millions of people out of poverty. The next clever gadgets that will cheaply and quickly filter water, prevent malaria, and stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. These ideas are almost by definition just over the horizon – because once an idea has been around for a few months, it’s not that innovative anymore.

And so what happens to those innovative ideas? What happens when the clever creator has received his fellowship grant and begins to work out the tricky details? From what I’ve seen, the funding organizations have moved on to the next ‘innovation’ and left the creator to work out the Boring Stuff on their own. My experience in Africa has pointed to the Boring Truth – 90% of what’s needed is not innovation but ‘capacity building’ – training, logistics, and equipment purchases. Building systems that can scale up to help thousands more people.

Take for example the work my fiancĂ©e does in health care. She is deploying an innovative new computer and mobile phone-based system to track and process health claim forms. It promises to reduce overhead and errors, increasing the rate at which health providers are reimbursed by funding agencies such as KFW (the German development bank). And yet the health providers she partners with, while supportive of her new claims system, are more excited by the equipment and training she is giving as part of the research. They’re excited about the opportunity to purchase laptops, check email, and learn how to track patients on Excel. And they want to do it on laptops, not smart-phones, as are being so heavily touted in development circles. They want to do things like we do in developed countries. Given the option, they’re taking the boring stuff before the innovative.

To a large extent I’ve found the same to be true in the work I do with water. The basic work – building gravity flow systems – has been done since the Romans! It’s not exactly cutting-edge technology. But the great improvements are coming from the Boring Stuff – GPS devices to mark pipe and tank locations. Creating a database to manage the hunt for new sources of water. These behind the scenes changes are making it much easier to build and manage a water system.

But unfortunately the Boring Stuff isn’t sexy enough to get funding. The truth is, nobody wants to fund it because they can’t put their names on it. The funding organizations can’t brag to their peers and donors about the Boring Stuff - “look we gave $10,000 to train X health practitioners on how to enter and process data!” But when they put out $10,000 to fund the Next Big Thing, out come the press, book agents, and dollars.

This trend points to a glaring fact – we in the developed world are more interested in creating a system that makes us feel good rather than creating a system that provides the resources people in the developing world need to succeed. And I will be the first to confess of this – I want to feel good about myself just as much as anyone else.

Now, all this is not to say that innovation is inherently bad – far from it. It is only to say that innovation should not be the absolute focus, or even the primary focus. We need to support the Boring Stuff, the physical and educational infrastructure that will be the foundation on which the vast majority of people are lifted out of poverty.

Elsewhere, Blood & Milk has argued along the same lines…

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Don't these people want clean water? (Part 2)

This morning I met with the head water engineer at the Millennium Villages Project in Ruhiira, Uganda. The MVP in Ruhiira is within a few kilometers of a previous ACTS project. In 2009 the community protected a spring that we are now considering for use in a new project. I dropped by the offices to introduce myself and see if we might collaborate with MVP.

The meeting was very encouraging; the engineer was excited to partner with a local NGO given our long history in the area and our existing relationship with the communities. And I was excited to find a talented Ugandan engineer with some new ideas about how to implement a GFS project. In my last post I lamented how difficult it is to make a project sustainable. This engineer suggested a different method gaining popularity in Uganda: private operators.

Over the years, GFS implementers have tried different ways to maintain the system after construction. In the past little thought was given to maintenance, the assumption being that the users would naturally have an interest in maintaining the system themselves, and would find the money and skill to do so. The number of broken systems littering Uganda speaks otherwise. More recently, implementers have created "tap stand" committees to perform operation and maintenance (O&M). These committees are formed of elected individuals from the community, and their function is to collect fees and perform maintenance. The engineer I spoke to today made a good point, one that I am now discovering: these committees often fade away after the construction is finished. Now, this is less of an issue for ACTS because it maintains a presence in the area for years - it's not going anywhere, and is therefore able to return to communities and encourage them to continue their commitment. However, this is not done without difficulty. But for most implementers, the system breaks down within a few years of completion. Therefore, some are now willing to license management of the system to a private operator. There are several advantages to this approach:
  • Uptime is in the operator's interest: every inoperative tap means lost revenue. The operator therefore has an interest in a high level of maintenance.
  • Smaller individual payments: instead of having a committee come door-to-door looking for 1,000 UGX every month, the operator can put locks on each tap, and then charge for every jerry can of water. The charge might be 40-50 UGX. The smaller payment makes a huge difference because of the short-term mentality people have here. It's difficult to save money for any period of time, even a month. Paying 50 UGX a time would likely be much preferable than a 1,000 UGX lump sum.
What are the drawbacks? I can think of a few:
  • Who do you license? Choosing an operator would likely be a very political decision. What qualifications should they have? What criteria would disqualify them? How do you keep the selection process transparent and fair?
  • Land issues: in ACTS projects, we ask the community to donate all land for tanks, pipes, and tap-stands. We do this because the system is for the community's benefit. But if now someone stands to make money, I don't think landowners would simply give away their land. And if they don't, then the construction costs could be much higher. Where would this extra money come from? Would funding agencies foot the extra cost, or would it be passed along to the community in the form of user fees? (user fees typically only cover operation costs, with the construction costs coming from a funding agency such as CIDA).
  • Community consent: would communities agree to pay a private operator? Would they trust them? Tap-stand committees have the advantage of being composed of people from the community, whom users presumably know and trust.
Personally, I think the advantage to using a private operator could be great. Any task that can be reasonably performed by the private sector likely has a greater chance for long-term sustainability because it is in the operator's financial interest.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Don't these people want clean water?

I frequently find it difficult to understand a Ugandan's motivations. Some behaviors are just odd. Like when four people are killed in a rural village for plotting to steal some bicycles. Like when a woman is assaulted for stealing a few watermelons. And like when half of Kampala riots because the ceremonial king isn't allowed to visit a particular district.

I chalk up the confusion I have from these news pieces to a lack of information. But I'm also confused by the way people behave in our project areas, where I have information, and where I understand what's going on a little bit better. I've spoken previously about how hard it is to get people to dig, even when they stand to gain so much. Turns out it's also difficult to get people to pay for what they've got.

Now you can call me captain obvious - of course people don't like to pay money! Especially the poor, who have little to begin with. But what baffles me is that in this case they need to pay very little, and receive so much in return. The situation is this: the beneficiaries of a gravity-flow water project agreed to pay 1,000 UGX (~ $0.50) per family per month to use a water tap, which is within a maximum of 500 meters of their home. The money goes towards system maintenance, replacing pipe, taps or cement that breaks down. Small as they are, these contributions are necessary to keep the system running. Because as simple as a gravity-flow system is, it will break down if not maintained.

But at one project site, few people are paying, and it's starting to show. Many of the taps are no longer functioning. The fix is cheap and simple, but there's no money to buy spare parts. So women and children, who used to fetch water close by, now walk to the next functioning tap, or to another source of water (which likely isn't clean). Why do they put up with such hardship rather than shell out the $0.50? I mean, even if you make just $1 per day, you only need to pay 1.7% of a month's wages to provide clean water to your family. What gives?

Speaking with friends and colleagues, their theories seem to break down into four catagories:
  • They don't have the money. In rural areas many people have almost no money at all. Families eke out a living, feeding themselves with what they grow. In such a situation every shilling is precious. They manage to survive, but are completely removed from a formal, cash-based economy.
  • They'd rather spend it on beer. Essentially this implies that priorities are elsewhere. Alcoholism is a rampant problem (I recently had to deal with a drunk village chief - not fun), and men are usually in control of the money. And since men control the money, they don't really care if the women or children have to go fetch water.
  • They don't think the money does anything. Even when paying, the system will break down. The money goes to repairing it when it does, not necessarily in preventing failure. So users may not realize that their money is going to repairs, so they don't pay because even if they do, things will break.
  • They don't like taxes. Because the fees for the water system resemble a tax, they refuse to pay. Taxes here are frequently squandered by corruption, and no one wants to give up what little money they have to fatten someone else's wallet.
Whatever theory is true, the end result is the same: system maintenance is a problem. The solution seems so simple, but so difficult to achieve. Don't they want clean water?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

No Divining Rod Necessary

"This is a road?"

Wedged between two small plots of land and jumping steeply up the hill, it was indeed a road, and I had to get my truck up it. My coworker Asaf stepped out of the truck, engaged the four wheel drive, and we continued on our way. Farther down the road, a beautiful green valley stretched to our left, beginning precariously close to the wheels of our vehicle.

It's amazing to me how green this part of Uganda is, and yet how hard it is to find water springs. The land is green and lush, and yet when we finally find a spring, it trickles out of the ground. We spend days driving around, from one low flow source to the next. And without fail, every source is described as "big" by locals. "How big?" I ask. "Big", the invariable answer. I'm becoming something of a skeptic. Trying to quantify relative differences is difficult - one of the classic cultural disparities between someone like me from "the West" and Africans.

I have been searching for sources for the last few weeks in hope of finding enough water for a new gravity flow project. To secure funding, we need to demonstrate a flow of at least 3 liters/second, or 48 gallons per minute. That's a lot of water, which makes it difficult to find a source strong enough. And it also means I do a lot of driving, each day hoping I'm doing to get lucky.

At each source we perform two tasks. First we measure the flow of the source by timing how long it takes to fill a jerry can (see the photo above). Secondly, we collect a sample of water to test for contaminants. We only consider clean sources for projects because incorporating water filtration into the system reduces the likelihood the system will be maintained in the future. Unfortunately, it also means that we limit the potential number of sources we can use for a new project.

Once we've found a promising source, I will be putting together a project proposal with preliminary engineering. Given the amount of water required, such a project would likely help around 10,000. Motivation enough to keep going out each day in hope of finding the big one.