Recently, a donor raised concerns about the quality of the construction work being done on a new school I’m helping locals build. His concerns were all raised by a single instagram.
From this single photo, the donor concluded that the rods were not joined properly. Therefore, this building is being built improperly. Therefore, this school won’t last. Etc etc etc.,.
I’d like to address this and I’d like to start by sharing a classification system I’ve developed as an educational tool to explain to others how various charities build schools.
In this system, a higher classification number indicates a better school. By “better” I mean quality of building – not anything to do with the education provided.
- Category One: A category one school is usually a tent. These are most commonly used in refugee camps or in a place where there is a dispute in land ownership. Many of these can be easily damaged or destroyed by rain or wind.
- Category Two: A category two school is usually made of scrap materials like thatch and/or bits of tin. While being able to stand up to a breeze or light rain, this offers litle or no protection from anything else.
- Category Three: A category three school is a mud hut with a roof made of tin or straw. This is a region specific design and cannot be done everywhere. It’s greatest shortcoming is that it is vulnerable to degradation in areas with changing seasons.
- Category Four: A category four school is a school with brick walls. It has a greater longevity than a category three school but is not built with expandability in mind. These schools don’t have a foundation and have limited load-bearing capacity on the roof. It is for this reason Category Four schools are only one-story tall with a tin or straw roof.
- Category Five: A category five school is a school built with load-bearing capacity. This means it’s built with a foundation and has the capacity to have a second story. Category Five schools mark a large leap in cost over Category Four schools because of the added cost of digging and building a foundation as well as the building and installation of load-bearing pillars.
Now the question is: what kind of school do you build? In a perfect world, every child studies in a Category Five school (or higher). But, in a realistic world with limited funds, you design for the community you are trying to serve.
The school I am currently building, unlike The John Green School (a Category Five School), is a Category Four school. Why? Because:
- This is what the local experts recommended.
- This is what the community asked for.
- This is of an equal or higher quality to what the majority of the community currently live in.
- This is of an equal or higher quality to the surrounding buildings.
- Expandability is not needed and would be impractical.
So, what about those welds? A Category Four school doesn’t have pillars. The donor, based on one photo, mistook this as a vertical support rod. It’s not. It’s a horizontal support designed to strengthen the wall in prep for the tin roof.
As someone entrusted with your money, it’s my responsibility to make sure I’m doing so wisely. I don’t want to have a Greg Mortenson-style scandalous failure. I do this by working with those with long-established ties to the community and experts far smarter than me.
But responsibility is a two-way street.
Part of entrusting your money in something means trusting them. The reason most NGOs don’t give micro-level step-by-step detail of the projects they do is to avoid armchair quarterbacking by Western supporters.
Just because something is done differently doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just because things are done one-way in the developed world and another way in developing countries doesn’t mean one is worse than the other. Local problems and challenges require local solutions and approaches.
And it’s a very very very bad path to assume just because something isn’t done like it’s done in the Western World that it’s automatically because of incompetence, corruption, or lack of expertise.
If you and I are going to change the conversation about Global Poverty, we have to prove that charities don’t need to over-simplify the problem of aid and development to us. But that also means we need to imagine the complexity of aid and development and eschew a West-Is-Best mentality.