The Value of Relationship – The Table: Part 4 of 5

Part 4: The Table

At The Water Project, we like to imagine that achieving access to safe, reliable water is like a family meeting. Everyone involved has a seat at a large round table — an equal position for all around the meal. At the table sits The Water Project, our local teams, members of the community where projects take place, government officials, donors and other members of the broader water sector. The Water Project is the convener, but there is no head of the table. Rather, it is a community of striving to ensure everyone else at the table can thrive.

Our founder and two local partners meet with a school principal in Kenya

Each seat is crucial to achieving the shared goal of ensuring safe, reliable water in the communities. At a table, different voices will arise as experts at different times.

One of the best expressions of the table metaphor is our online project reporting where we tell the story of a reliable water point. Officers from local teams, oftentimes people from the very communities where they are working, conduct surveys and interviews as a part of the process to evaluate potential water points. It ensures a community’s seat at the table is occupied and amplified.

Traditionally, these kinds of reports are one-way communications between an organization and a donor to show their money is spent appropriately. We use the entire reporting process to facilitate the most important conversations at the table and ensure the highest possible return on investment.

A project report from Shisango Girls School (Principal seen above)

The ongoing monitoring of these projects is another crucial layer. Reliable water is a continuing conversation. Projects are visited no less than three times a year by our local teams to check that water still flows and that it is safe to drink.

The local teams are a critical part of the monitoring process; visiting with communities before, during, and after a water point is installed. They are members of these communities. They speak the local languages. They drink from the same water sources.

The status of a project is updated on our website and within each report for everyone to see in near real-time. At any moment in a projects life, anyone can look up the status — including past failures, projects that can not be repaired or projects we no longer can monitor.

This information is shared across all seats at the table, first to The Water Project and then on to our supporters, the communities where we work, and our local experts. Being transparent by reporting on each of our water points is a way to bring more people to the table, adds additional layers of accountability, and fosters interdependence.

Throughout, we learn new ways to ask questions to better understand the reality of impact, to identify issues in need of repair, and to imagine new ways to share reliable, safe water.

<< Back to Part 3Continue Reading – Trust: Part 5 of 5 >>

The Value of Relationship: Accountability – Part 3 of 5

Part 3: Fostering Accountability

Traditionally, accountability and even corrective action for development projects come from the top. This can lead to the wrong solutions or an intervention based on faulty, imported assumptions. We see it all the time in the graveyards of good meaning, in failed water projects within our program areas. Each nonfunctional project a reminder to the community of what is not reliable, and a reminder that the impact of donor funds is buried within that same broken project. Installing another water project isn’t our biggest challenge — ensuring and proving reliability is.

A local team member gathers functionality data in real time.

While we were inspired by the potential for economic multipliers in water investment, over our 11 years of experience we’ve seen too many water efforts succumb to neglect, the economics of which are obvious. Communities received water for a short time and then something happened. Sometimes it was something simple, like a broken valve. Other times it was something more complex, like a failure of local ownership. Regardless of the reason, it was neglect and lack of transparent follow-up by otherwise well-meaning organizations that prevented resolution. In the worst cases, they knew about these problems and simply moved on to the next “project”, and then the next.

So we determined to change the math. We staked a claim that we thought to be obvious: for a water project to count as effective, it must work every single day. We have to know water is actually flowing and that information must be public. So, we transformed our work, assembling like-minded groups across the globe to make it happen.

A true partnership is an end-to-end process. It involves input, planning, installation and most importantly on-going evaluation. A collaborative, non-competitive, interdependent relationship leads to truth-seeking, not conflict avoidance. A grant seeker won’t reveal all their faults readily. A partner seeking reliable water does.

By working with communities and constantly monitoring projects, we enable accountability from the proverbial bottom. Doing so catalyzes interdependence. It rotates a traditionally vertical process into one that is horizontal.

Like a table.

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The Value of Relationship – Partnership: Part 2 of 5

Part 2 : Redefining Partnership

Our partners are local experts, artisans, and development professionals organized as recognized in-country NGOs. Together we determine the most reliable water solution — whether it is a dam in southeastern Kenya, a borehole in Uganda, or rainwater tank for a school in western Kenya. When they leverage their deep knowledge of each community and elevate their seat and voice at the table, nothing is imposed.

Recent all partner conference in Kenya.

We carefully come alongside partners who share our commitment to long-term relationships and commitments to the people being served — and then we support the building of relationships, focused on developing reliable water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) programs at scale.

For example, our team in Sierra Leone requires that staff live in the communities where they work. In Southeast Kenya, our local colleagues work with local groups established years before a water point is installed. These community groups, supported by local experts, are the main actors in building dams and wells that turn dry parts of Kenya into areas with reliable water.

Local teams regularly work in the community to understand the true need.

True partnership runs in multiple directions. Most current models of “partnering,” with so-called local water experts, are merely a grantee-grantor arrangement with only near-term, grantor led goals. For The Water Project, active interdependence defines our relationships and is what makes them unique. Knowledge sharing, management capacity, monetary investment, strategic planning, program evaluation, problem resolution, and impact assessments all happen collaboratively in an effort to discover the truth about providing reliable water at scale.

Our in-country experts lead strategic planning.

We all learn by listening and sharing gathered knowledge across all our teams. Competition for grant funds, often counterproductive in truth-seeking, is eliminated as each group is welcomed to the process of strategic goal setting across our shared programs. Each group needs the other to best serve communities in need of reliable water.

Partnerships are the ends, not just the means to safe, reliable water.

<< Back to Part 1  | Continue Reading – Part 3: Accountability and Transparency >>



The Value of Relationship – A five part series

Part 1: Relationships, not wells, are key to safe water

by Tom Murphy: Reporting Officer, The Water Project

The Water Project does not build wells. We build relationships.

Before dismissing what is seemingly a trite expression, allow me to explain what I mean because it is a crucial distinction that means the difference between contributing to a long history of failure in the water sector and working to achieve lasting access to safe water.

We have learned over the past decade that reliable water matters. Open water sources are reliable but unsafe. Wells are safe but are most often unreliable. But they don’t have to be.

Wells and appropriate water points can be both safe and reliable if strong relationships are in place. In the end, people are going to choose the water source that is most reliable.

Installing a new community well that breaks down months later and forces people to return to collecting water from an unsafe, open water source is a failure. The development graveyards that litter sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are marked with headstones made of the concrete ruins of abandoned wells, incomplete latrines, and broken pumps.

They look like this:

A broken water pump at a primary school in Mlanda, Tanzania. (Credit: Tom Murphy)

 So people turn to the most reliable source of water. This:

Open water source

Open water source less than a mile away from the broken pump. (Credit: Tom Murphy)

I have seen this first hand. Communities in Ghana with latrines that fell apart and a school in Tanzania where the water pump broke down and sat unused for more than a year. I reported on this problem in Tanzania with Jacob Kushner. We found that a push to increase access to water in the country led to the construction of many new wells that eventually broke down due to a lack of ongoing support. Communities were provided new water points and told to take care of them.

Sound familiar?

It is relatively easy to build a well. Buy or rent a rig, hire a team, drill until the proper depth is reached, install a pump, and let the water flow. We could do that by ourselves, an ocean away from the problem. It is what has often been done in this sector over the past few decades. But it doesn’t work.

Recognizing the failures of “independently” providing water points, some organizations did attempt to engage local communities by establishing water committees who supposedly were equipped to care for the new wells. But they usually failed as quickly as the well. Money shortages or lack of availability of parts to repair a broken well defeated the best-organized groups. Community training took a “teach-a-man-to-fish” approach to support a new water point but acted as if it takes only one lesson to master fishing.

Such pseudo-cooperative methods ignored local leaders and experts at the most crucial stages of the project, including planning.

How do we know all this? Because we too have made mistakes. We invested in wells that failed, do not work, or that we can no longer reach to monitor. We tried supporting water user committees that couldn’t support a water point. But, we reengaged and learned the complexity to understand what went wrong. And through this process, we learned how to be better. We learned to depend on our local teams and the communities we joined to help as equally essential contributors throughout the entire process.

That is why we don’t build improved water points, like wells, protected springs, and rainwater harvesting tanks using unaffiliated contractors or even volunteer labor. Instead, we identify, strengthen and work through committed local leaders already at work in development. They become “partners” in our work to provide clean water.

Continue Reading – Part 2: Redefining Partnership