When I was building the Pond Sand Filter in Barguna, Bangladesh, I decided to scout out and see what the condition of other recently completely water projects were like. What I saw shocked me.
A leaking & broken faucet from a Pond Sand Filter left in disrepair in rural Bangladesh
Most of the completed water projects under community control were in disrepair. Even things like faucets & knobs – things easily fundraised & replaced by villagers – were left unrepaired.
At the same time, the same villagers were each saving up so that they could each have a cellphone and many were trying to save up to have a television or radio in their house.
Did these villagers not care about clean water? Were they too lazy? Unmobilized? The answer? They just wanted to be on par with their neighboring villages.
It turns out many of the neighboring villages didn’t receive clean water support from a charity. So, even if the Pond Sand Filter in this particular village failed, they’d still be on par with their neighbors.
Because drinking unsafe water was the norm, it didn’t seem like a loss. But, because cellphones were becoming ubiquitous in other villages, villagers were saving up so as to not be left behind.
This is important. What this shows is that how we progress as a society is based on our impetus to keep up with others – and what we feel will become (or is already) ubiquitous.
I mention this now because I recently read an article by New York Times author Nicholas Kristof. In it he mentions that:
Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.
NY Times Author Nicholas Kristof
In the article he points to parents who buy booze & cigarettes – instead of tuition for their kids. Or families who spend money on cellphones – instead of mosquito nets.
His conclusion is that aid & development agencies need to “try to redirect the family money now spent”. I agree with Mr. Kristof – but he’s mistaken a quirk of human society for individual irresponsibility.
If you want families to invest in their children’s education – let’s first make education standard and ubiquitous for all. Granted this burdens the developed world with the cost – but we don’t have to fund this forever.
Even if a single generation gets the taste of universal education and grows up where everyone around them is educated – it will be sustained. Why? No village would ever want to be the first to slide back from that progress.
Not only that, but if education isn’t sporadically distributed, it is easier to see the correlation between education & success. It only takes the proper investment in one generation to create role models for the next generation to follow.
(As a side note, Americans spent $8 billion on cosmetic products – but it only costs $6 billion to provide free education to every child in the developing world. So it’s not like we can’t afford to do what I’m suggesting.)
Similarly, if you want to make it so every water project is sustained by a local village, make sure every village gets clean water. No village will want to be the first one to start drinking brown water again.
(As a side note, Europeans spent $11 billion on ice cream last year – but it only costs $9 billion to provide clean water for every single person who doesn’t have access to it right now. So, again, we could afford this if we really wanted to.)
We often fail to imagine the complexity of living in poverty. For most people living in extreme poverty, clean water, childhood school education, and a malaria-free life are luxuries.
And, when it comes to how we buy luxuries, we always do so in a way that keeps up with the Jonses. Which is why Bangladeshis villagers I met bought in cellphones instead of clean water and the Congolese villagers Mr. Kristof met bought booze instead of school tuition.
Writing this blog post was a bit tough because Mr. Kristof is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner – and I’m a graduate school drop-out. He’s the gold-standard for articles & thoughts about global poverty.
But, in this particular case, I respectfully disagree with his POV.