My flip flops slap against the ground as I call out “Desiba” (“Good morning”) to the women walking past on the narrow dirt path. Ahead of me, Rashida balances two giant metal containers on her head, while Zewera follows behind. We come over a small ridge and I find myself looking at a large pond. Rashida and Zewera continue down the slope to the water, where they hike up their skirts and wade in. They fill the two buckets with the milky-looking water and help each other hoist the containers back up onto their heads. They are strong – those buckets must weigh at least 100 lbs. As we walk the 8 minutes back to the compound, other women call out, laughing and asking me where my water is. I tried carrying a small bucket yesterday, but my head-balancing skills are definitely not up to par. Today I’ve elected to bring my camera instead (it’s one or the other – I spill too much water when I’m carrying it on my head to bring a camera!).
We arrive back at the compound and Rashida and Zewera skillfully pour the water from the tops of their heads into the giant clay pots that are fixed to the ground. Inside, the new water mixes with the old, left over from last night’s trip to the pond. Rashida takes an old tomato can from beside the pots, scoops up some water and takes a long drink. She refills it, then takes it over to where her 7-month-old daughter Failatu is sitting on a reed mat and holds the can for her to drink. Zewera does the same for her 2-year-old son, Mohammed Awa. Then the two women pick up their containers and head back to the pond for another load.
This scene, from the village of Gbabshie, is unfortunately common in northern Ghana. These two women will make the trip to the pond 4-5 times per day to supply this 11-person household with water. Luckily for them, it’s not a long walk – some women walk over 2 km to access water in the dry season. They will use this water for all of their household needs: cooking, bathing, drinking and washing. They know the water is not good, but they have no other choice. Mr. Iddirisu, the sole member of the household who can speak any English, says “we see the goats defecating near the water and we know it’s not safe. We need a borehole but no NGO has yet come.”
Iddirisu’s statement is indicative of the development culture in Ghana. Though they may try, the government of Ghana has not been successful at meeting the needs of its population. This is both an issue of resources and of capacity (more on that in later posts). As a result, the doors have been thrown open to NGOs, foreign development agencies and multilateral institutions to fill the gap. Ghana in particular has become a “development darling” thanks to its relative stability and support for foreign projects. Now there are literally thousands of projects operating here on all scales, from small local NGOs doing agroforestry projects, to multinational UN-funded campaigns to eradicate guinea worm. In many cases, NGOs are playing a role that would traditionally be filled by the government – hardly a sustainable model.
Let’s get back to the water problem in Gbabshie: the community needs a safe water source. It would be easy to come into the community, see the women and children drinking from this filthy pond, make a quick video appealing for donations from friends in Canada, and pay a local NGO to install a borehole. Bam! problem solved. But is it really solved? Let’s take a closer look.
Have you ever been given something for free? Maybe it was a bicycle, a phone, a book, just something that someone else didn’t want anymore. How much value did you place on this discarded item from your friend? Probably not much – it wasn’t worth much to him/her, so why should it be worth so much to you?
What about this: have you ever shared a resource with a large group of people? Maybe it was a common kitchen in your house, or supply of toilet paper in an outhouse at camp. What was the state of this shared resource after some time passed? Did you have to put some structure in place to manage the resource well? What incentives did you have to care for the resource, and how did you react to other people using it in different ways?
These two issues both come into play when discussing a village borehole: you’re giving something away for free to a group of people. Of course they will appreciate it – clean water! But how will they treat the borehole? Who will take care of it? Who will be responsible for paying for repairs? Who has priority over the water? It is common to come back to one of these villages a year later and still see women walking to the pond to get water. The borehole has broken down, and no one is responsible for paying for repairs, so they haven’t been done. Besides, why pay for repairs when any day an NGO might come along and repair it for free?
In the middle of the village of Gbabshie lies a testament to these issues. The women’s group here received a grinding mill several years ago. Now it lies in disrepair, covered in cobwebs. No one is willing to pay to have it fixed, so all the money the NGO put into buying and installing the machine in the first place has gone to waste.
These issues of sustainability are always prevalent in development projects. It is easy to fill an immediate need; it is much more difficult to change the institutional environment around that resource so that the change will be sustained. For a borehole, several conditions need to be in place. Someone needs to be responsible for managing that borehole, whether it is one person or a committee of people. Users need to contribute money for maintenance and repairs. For this to happen, people need to see value in having a working borehole, which means they need to be educated on water and health issues. When the borehole breaks down, skilled technicians need to be accessible to the community at an affordable price. Replacement parts must be locally available in a timely manner. People must know their rights and how to address the authorities if they are being taken advantage of. And NGOs must not continue to offer new things for free which undermine the existing system.
This example demonstrates the complexity of poverty and development. There are simple solutions, but there are no simple problems, so the simple solutions will inevitably fail. To address the complex problem of poverty, we need complex solutions that change the operating environment of development in Ghana. Institutional changes take time to produce, but the effect is long-lasting and the impact is much greater.