Posted by: waterforwaslala | August 29, 2012

Why do development projects fail? Stories about the importance of working WITH

By Nora Pillard Reynolds, VP and Director of Communication

In April, fellow WfW board member, Justin Knabb and I attended the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative Conference. The conference, “Measure of Success: Performance Indicators for Drinking Water Projects in the Developing World”, attracted over 100 professionals and students to the University of Pennsylvania for the day.

During one interesting panel, Elynn Walter from WASH Advocates called the audience to “discontinue business as usual”. John Sauer from Water for People commented, “we want the whole process to be in the hands of the people…the customers”. Sauer continued by asking whether we are considering the customers’ goals and satisfaction. Acknowledging the lack of understanding about customers’/ beneficiaries’/ community members’ perspectives, Sauer emphasized that Water for People wants “to do customer feedback type work”. Now I could spend a whole blog post discussing what term we should use…customers, beneficiaries, community members…but, for now, I will stick with the term used in Waslala…the community.

This lack of understanding and even focus on the perspectives of those that we are presumably there to “help” is problematic for several reasons that relate to the sustainability of projects, but I think the importance of community perspectives is best demonstrated through a few stories. Oftentimes, when NGOs or development organizations arrive in a location with their own ideas about what the community “needs”, we completely miss out on knowledge held by community members that would improve project sustainability.

In a past blog post, “What would the pigs eat?”, Jordan Ermilio, the Director of Water System Engineering, wrote about his experience with a failed sanitation project in East Timor.
Another story that demonstrates the importance of communication with community members to ensure sustainability was told to me by a local partner in Waslala.

A group of optometrists travel to a rural village in Waslala to conduct vision consultations. In the village, they are received by lines of villagers waiting to see “the doctor”. The group does have translators with each doctor in order to avoid communication problems. With limited resources, the doctors use Bibles to conduct the vision tests. They ask the villagers, “Can you read this?” Many of the villagers respond, “No”. The doctors give those villagers a pair of glasses, which they proudly put on for their walk home. The villagers are thrilled with their new glasses. The doctors feel satisfied that they have been able to reach so many people in one day who never have access to an eye doctor.

So what’s the problem? Well, the majority of the older villagers in this location are illiterate. When the doctors/ translators asked them if they could read the Bible, the responses meant that they could not read as opposed to whether they could see the words displayed on the pages of the Bible.

Another example from my experiences in Waslala relates to a large water system project funded by a foreign embassy.

The water system was planned to serve most of the Waslalan town center- several thousand people. An outside engineer was contracted by the embassy to conduct the feasibility study. The following year, when I was back in Waslala, I asked the local municipal engineer how things were going with the large water system. He just looked at me and responded, “Well, it works great during the rainy season”.

What is the problem? During the rainy season in Waslala (about 9 months/ year) water access is less of a problem since community members can use water collection techniques. The dry season is when water systems are crucial since community members have no access to rain water. The outside engineer had taken the flow measurements for the new water system during the rainy season when (of course) there was adequate water flow to serve the town; however, during the dry season that water source does not have adequate flow. Months of construction and substantial funding had only resulted in a water system that works during a time when community members already have access to water. The local municipal engineer knows about the fluctuations in flow due to the seasons and, if asked, knows that it is crucial to always do feasibility studies and take flow measurements during the dry season.

Over the years, anyone engaged in development work collects stories that demonstrate the necessity of working WITH the community and letting the community members drive the projects. Some of them would be funny (like the one about the pigs) if it wasn’t so tragic to think about the resources- money, time, energy- that were spent on unsustainable projects. These challenges and stories like this from past work inform Water for Waslala’s approach in everything we do.

Can anyone share some stories of your own?



  1. […] Other examples abound like this great post by Linda Raftree or this one about development failures by Nora Reynolds. […]

  2. […] and expertise of the local communities” (Ansari, Phillips, & Zwi, 2002, p. 156). [See blog post I wrote for Water for Waslala with several examples of failed projects resulting from a lack of communication with the […]

  3. […] and expertise of the local communities” (Ansari, Phillips, & Zwi, 2002, p. 156). [See blog post I wrote for Water for Waslala with several examples of failed projects resulting from a lack of communication with the […]

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