The easy way is often not the right way

As you know MSABI strongly believes in community contributions for our infrastructure programs.  Ownership and pride over water and sanitation assets, we believe, is key towards sustainable longterm upkeep and longevity of installed assets.  Couple this with a business model where owners are encouraged to sell safe water to their community and you have further incentive to ensure a MSABI water point stays in operation.  Lastly, providing simple, low cost, easy to use and most importantly easy/affordable to repair pump technology is vital to a sustainable model.

A community focused model is not the easiest way for an NGO to operate.  It requires a close relationship with the community - it requires their trust, to know you are providing something of value - that you are not just their to make a profit and run away.  It takes a lot of time and hard work to obtain the trust of a community.  Similarly it takes a lot of time and hard effort for community members to find the capital and resources to afford a new water point or latrine.  We hope that the hard work from both sides will reward us with clean water and improved sanitation for many years - something that we can both can be proud of.

Now let me say this.  There is too much money thrown into Africa.  In large, in my opinion, all of this foreign aid is a virulent cancer that is feeding a culture of dependence and promoting corrupt activities.  Easy money that needs to be spent quickly (so that foreign donors can meet their development contribution commitments) often results in poorly thought-out programs.  It promotes high expat salaries, hefty purchases of non-essential land-cruisers and expensive rents in expat enclaves for house/office complexes - it encourages low-effort high cost policy/review type exercises.  If the money is not spent then the overseas donor may look for a new NGO outlet to give their funds - hence there is motive to spend spend spend - which inflates local prices.  This is so ingrained in Africa that the economy would collapse without the NGO industry - in fact it is the largest contributor to the Tanzanian economy at present.  So some will argue that it is contributing a sustainable industry for Africa - but I question when and how can this drip can/will ever be removed - at what point is it an addictive drug and not a measure used to get someone back on their feet.  My gut feel is it will not end in my lifetime - too many "important" people rely on its existence - which funnily comes back to the issue of sustainability - because this industry is very sustainable funds wise, so should we embrace it?

And as responsible rich first world citizens we are encouraged by large NGO organisations to give our money to the developing world to provide them with their basic needs - their basic rights.  It is our responsibility to support Africa/Asia and provide services.  But to do a good job, an implementing organisation must know the local social context, political structure, and physical environment - and then they must also have the right intentions.  Often this is the part we don't focus on as donors.  Once we donate we assume our money is being spent in the correct way and programs implemented in "best" manner for the recipient communities.  But is it?  Well in my experiences it isn't.  And looking back, I guess that was one of the major drivers for me to start MSABI in the first place - I was disgusted with what I saw in Tanzania and wanted to try and show how things could be done with little monetary input.

Recently, when talking to friends and general people I meet - I feel a change in attitudes towards charitable organisations over say the last 5 years.  I am hearing skepticism, and mistrust on how our donations are being spent.  I checked out annual reports from World Vision (2009) and Plan International (2008).  On face value it appears from the financial report that Australian based fundraising and administration accounts for around 20% of total revenue.  But what they don't report is for money to finally reach a project (at ground level) there are generally 3 tiers of office/admin/fundraising.  For example they report the amount of funds disseminated to each overseas country - and that's it.  However, for example in Tanzania - money from the Australian World Vision office would first go to a national Tanzanian office.  The Tanzanian office would then distribute funds to regional offices for general regional activities.  The regional office would then decide which money is to be used for actual projects.  Now this is where the money really gets lost and eaten up.  But anyway if we are nice and say that the national office center has overheads of 20% and the regional also 20% - then the final money actually available for a project is a disappointing 51% of your donation.  These hidden expenses are not reported and they should be.  Oh, and the salaries of the directors and CEOs of these charitable organisations are not bad - Tim Costello World Vision makes $250,000 /yr, I'm not saying he doesn't deserve it, but its still a lot of money required to drive such an organisation (note total director fees for World Vision in 2009 were $1.1 million).  Others make more:

In comparison MSABI spends no money on fundraising, and all administration is undertaken at no cost by our team of volunteer staff - who happen to be skilled water engineers, environmental scientists, etc.  We do have expenses for things such as printers, paper, stationary, rent (storage, office), travel (to/from Dar), mobile phone.  These general non-project-specific expenses currently account for 6% of our total spent budget, or 3% of our total revenue.   If we are to grow larger, our approach will be to develop a replicate small-scale model with a strong local business focus.

Another disappointment is that these large NGOs, doing multiple activities, often lack specialists on the ground.  For example, for their water projects - of the many large NGOs I have made contact with in Tanzania, very few (I know of only 1) have water engineers or environmental scientists etc working for their organisation.  Which makes me seriously question their technical capacity as an organisation and the quality of work implemented. So what is the solution to this - well of course farm out the work to a contractor.  And if you don't want to do much work?  Well why not make a relationship with a contractor and do a deal.  (And this example is from my personal experience).  The NGO writes a very very specific tender document (which they charge $50 for you to even get a copy and read it), that basically preselects for one drilling company - eg you must have such and such a drilling truck with specific engine capacity, completed a zillion dollars work last year, be capable to drill 120m deep with a 12" bore etc etc.  In all likelihood the contractor has helped write the tender and paid a upfront kick-back.  Then they win the contract at their exorbitantly high rate - in this case it was US$15,000 per borehole.  Then they go and do the work and drill 5x 30m deep boreholes and don't even bother to put in a concrete sanitary seal to protect the polluted shallow aquifers from the deep clean and safe aquifers.  The guys running the drilling rig are drillers, there are no engineers on-ground.  They charge $65,000 for a days work - probably kick-back $5-10,000 to the NGO staff for winning the contract - and off they go.  And those 5x 30m boreholes could have been drilled by MSABI for $4000, providing 5 weeks worth of employment for 10 local village persons.

Now lets look at another NGO strategy - It would be very easy to install water and sanitation assets for free - very easy.  Literally, we could install hundreds of pumps in one year.  We could promote this and tell the world how great we are and how many people we are serving - and on the surface it would look fantastic!  What would follow would be more funds - probably more money than is needed.  So now we can buy a fancy Land-cruiser, rent a nice big office and continue installing lots of free pumps, pay some big expat wages.  Heck, we will even provide a management training course for each new pump - promoting a sustainable model - perhaps a 1-3 day program.  We could even expand to new areas, for example where MSABI is working.  We would for sure be more successful than MSABI, and probably send their program to extinction - because who would want to pay for something when it is free.  And after we have finished in that area we will move to the next and so on.  The NGO is not around in a years time when pumps start failing or require vital maintenance - and there is no ownership - so nobody is prepared to put their money up to fix even the small problems.  So within 1-3 years the majority of pumps are broken and people are back to drinking water from shallow open wells - and there is millions of dollars worth of assets sitting broken and disused.  Even if the NGO does hang around and provides free maintenance and upkeep on their pumps - well I guess this is sustainable in one sense.  But what is our objective and responsibility as donors?  Is it fair to leave a culture of dependence for future African generations?

My answer is a strong No.  The way forward for Africa is to promote good governance and business activities.  The business mentality exists - and in Tanzania business is thriving - the economy is growing at around 10% per annum for the last 5 years, something we don't hear much about here.  The governance side - well that requires a lot of improvement.  But hey so does Australia's!

So I know many of you already have second thoughts about donating funds to the multitude of charities out there.  And I agree that it is for good reasons.  Please do not blindly donate to the biggest flashiest NGO splashing their name around on TV with heart grabbing advertisements - in my opinion you could be contributing to Africa's problems - not helping.

Note I am discussing development programs and not Aid programs.  Aid is for emergencies such as earthquakes, tsunamis etc.  Mind you I was in Banda Aceh last year.  I was surfing and I stayed in a home stay with a lady named Mama Mami.  Sadly, Mami lost her husband and daughter in the 2004 tsunami.  She explained how the NGOs seemed to have a lot of money - and were having turf wars with each other.  Mami ended up with 4 new houses of varying quality to replace the one house that was wiped out by the tsunami.

This is just me on my high horse - based on my up and down experiences in Tanzania.