November 15, 2009

The problem with sustainability and the way 99% of NGOs function

So, I just talked to a friend of mine who read my last blog post and she seemed to get the idea that the women aren't that reliable and that it takes a lot of prodding from me to get them to do anything, which is absolutely not true.

So allow me clarify a few things.

A lot of volunteers, NGOs, etc. will roll into a village spend a couple days there and declare "You need a ______ (school/library/garden/clinic)!" This sort of situation is the WORST IDEA EVER and not sustainable AT ALL! For example, an NGO walks into a village and says, "You need a garden and we're going to build you one," and all the village people, if you will, are all super excited. The NGO then proceeds to build the garden using all expensive materials instead of local ones, ie. steel poles instead of wooden ones, chain-link instead of live fencing, pumps instead of wells. And the villagers love it and they start gardening. Fast-forward one year to when the pump breaks. Who's going to fix it? Well, no one has the money to fix a pump and since none of the villagers feel any ownership over the garden, it's not anyone's responsibility. So the pump never gets fixed. And the garden ceases to be used and just sits there. Fast forward 5 years, another NGO comes and says, oh, here's this garden just sitting here being unused, let us fix it for you and/or build you a better one. And on and on it goes.

The moral of the story is that if the village people don't actively want the garden or clinic or school and don't take an active role in the planning and construction, it will fail. Because they never had to make any sacrifices for it or work for it, they will not feel any ownership over it and will not feel responsible when things go wrong, which THEY WILL. Pumps break alllllll the time. And so do fences.

What happened with the garden I'm working on is this: I was approached by a guy (the fact that I did not approach the village already gives this project a much higher chance at success/sustainability) who told me there's this great women's group, would I be willing to meet with them. I said sure. I met with them, conducted a series of assessments and found them to be incredibly motivated and organized, more so than any other group I had encountered.

They had one garden and wanted another. But wait! Why should you build them a garden if they already have one? Well, the fact that they already have a really stable, working, maintained garden means that they are responsible and would likely care for another one. And not everyone was able to get plots in the first garden. I would much sooner help build a garden in a village with another, already working garden, then a village with an unused garden, because that shows me that someone came in and built a garden and the people in the village didn't care enough to maintain.

So we discussed the design, area, and features of the garden. We settled on using all local materials except for the barbed wire. The carpenter we used to assemble the barbed wire fence (which is done!!!!) is from the village, as are the well diggers, who are digging LOCAL wells.

I agreed to help them raise money for the barbed wire, the well materials (cement, rods, wires) and the labor costs for the carpenter and well diggers. In return, the women were responsible for collecting and erecting local fence posts, bringing in cart-fulls of sand and gravel for the well-diggers and clearing the land.

While I am very excited for this project to be done and be successful, they are ALL 100 times more excited than me, and that is a good thing. It means they care about this project and will care for its maintenance in the future. Not once have they asked for help or money with the activities they can perform themselves. Everyday they go out there and work on it, whether it's digging fence holes, or clearing the land, they work hard. And they complete every single task I give them. I am not just coming in and making decisions and throwing money at the land. They are the ones calling the shots--location of well, how many garden beds per woman, how many beds will be allocated to seeds, how will the fence posts be erected, who should dig the wells, etc.

By giving them control and ownership of this project, the women will see the garden as a product of their hard efforts and they will feel responsible for it in the future. AND by using all local materials and laborers, they will be able to address any future issues. The barbed wire is the only none local material. But, we will dedicate 10 garden beds to nursing sisal seedlings (sisal is like aloe and works great as a live fence, meaning that you plant them 1m apart along the perimeter of the garden and after a year or two it grows enough to act as a fence). So once those seedlings are nursed, they will be transplanted in between each fence post, so that when (and it certainly will happen) the fence breaks down and the barbed wire comes apart, there will already be a fence in place and they won't need to spend any money fixing it.

So, because of this careful planning, which was done with input from the village every step of the way, and because of the complete desire on the part of the women to make this garden work, I am 100% confident that it will be standing 5 or 10 years from now. I can't stress enough how vital it is for the group of people you work with on any project to desire the success of the project more than you. A project can never be successful if you take on more responsibility than the beneficiaries. Does that make sense? If I was to walk in and say, you need a garden, instead of them coming to me saying we want a garden and will do anything to get one, it wouldn't work.

So there you have it, the women are motivated, capable and work their asses off. I only talk about deadlines because it is a nation-wide epidemic that Gambians never do anything on time. But so far, everything is getting done. I mentioned in the last post that the fence should be finished within a day or two, and it was, and that the door should be picked up and erected, and it was. Everything is going great!

1 comment:

jacobsoliva said...

Even I work as an NGO in USA for orphan kids and hence its is very inspiring and motivating reading such informative post.
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