Successful projects start with the right questions

The key to successful projects, whether they address water and sanitation such as the one above, or one of the other areas of focus, is to get community input and ask the local community what they need.
There are many slums around Nairobi. The people living in them don’t have access to many of the things we have. It would be nice to help them.

That was the thought behind a project carried out by one U.S. Rotary club from a “very friendly district,” according to Geeta Manek, governor of District 9200, which includes Kenya. Some members of the club had volunteered at a community center in the Mukuru slums. They found that the slums had no toilets or showers, and they wanted to fix that. So they made a grant of $2,000 available to build two of each.

Some time later, one of the club members traveled to Kenya and decided to check on the project. The toilets and showers had no handles, and they were sitting unused. Manek got an exasperated call and was asked to go check it out.

“The knobs were not on because there was no money for connecting the water from the main line,” Manek says, “and there was no place to get rid of the used water. The knobs would have been stolen. So we had to come up with extra money to supply water and to put a caretaker there. The problem was that a feasibility study was not done. Nobody had gone and checked out, What are we going to do before and after the project?”

This is not an uncommon phenomenon, says Ted Rose, a California native who has lived in Colima, Mexico, for 28 years. A member of the Rotary Club of Colima, he frequently speaks to clubs and districts about how to avert such problems. “I’ve been a Rotary volunteer around the world and helped a lot of clubs be successful with grants. In the process, I’ve made every possible mistake a guy can make. I’ve also seen a lot of other people’s mistakes.”

Why projects fail 

As an example, he cites a young woman, the daughter of a California Rotarian, who had volunteered at an orphanage in Guatemala. After she came home, her father’s club decided to build the orphanage a carpentry workshop, so the children could learn a valuable trade. A good idea – in theory. But after four years (and thousands of dollars), some of the Rotarians went to see the project and found that the tools had been stolen and the shop was standing empty. The children at the orphanage could not remember it ever having been used.

What went wrong? Something simple: No one had asked the orphanage if it needed, or wanted, a carpentry shop. Rose says this lack of support from recipients is one of the main reasons projects fail. If it wasn’t their idea, or their money, why should they care?

The realization that these conversations must happen may seem straightforward, but it has been long in coming. It is also part of a larger trend in thinking about how assistance and aid are distributed around the world. The last few years have seen a debate over whether aid itself is even a good idea. Economists Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, and William Easterly, author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, say that the trillion or so dollars poured into Africa since 1960 have not been effective. Each year, the continent loses about $148 billion (about 25 percent of the GDP of African states) to corruption, yet some African countries get more than half their budgets from aid. To what end?

There is a big difference between that large-scale aid and the smaller grants and projects of individual Rotary clubs. But the change in thinking is relevant to both. In the past, people thought poverty was a simple lack of money or things. Fixing poverty meant adding money and things. But it’s not that easy.

Ask, investigate, repeat

Economists such as Harvard’s Michael Kremer are calling for “smart aid,” which targets specific issues and rigorously measures results. Other people, such as Emeka Okafor, an NBA player who launched the One Million African Lives Initiative in 2006, have pushed for aid that bypasses government coffers and instead invests in civil society and social institutions.

The terminology these days is more about investment, trade, growth, results, and accountability than it used to be. Even Bono and Bob Geldof have started investment funds. The “appropriate technology” movement, which once held that supplying people with the right machines was all that was needed for development, has given way to a market-driven approach led by Paul Polak and the “social entrepreneurs” who look for unmet demands, then create products to sell that will meet those demands. They help people, make money, and everyone feels some ownership over the result.

All these changes boil down to one thing: asking people what they need instead of telling them. It means treating them like partners. It also reflects a shift of focus from alleviating poverty as an abstract idea to the messy reality of helping people who don’t have much money. Unless you know a certain part of the world intimately, the chances of you knowing how to solve its problems are small. The solution? Ask. Investigate. Repeat.

Change is happening on both ends. District 9200 is a Future Vision pilot district. Kaushik Manek, Geeta Manek’s husband and a past governor of the same district, says that all projects now must include a feasibility study, and will be examined by auditing and monitoring teams. “We want sustainable projects, not handouts,” he says. “We want projects that last five to seven years.”

Qualities of a successful project

A little further south, in Arusha, Tanzania, another past district governor, Amir Somji, noted that because Arusha is a tourist city, Rotarians there see a lot of dubious project proposals.

“People come here to travel, and they see poverty,” Somji says. “Fair enough. But it is a bad project when they say, ‘Please help this village there.’ Then it is not our choice. It’s the choice of people from outside. You don’t want the project to be thrust upon you. You want a project that you are also passionate about.”

Rose lists several qualities that help projects succeed: Training and education, because if people don’t understand the project, it’s much more likely to fail. Maintenance. And local knowledge, whether that means working with an area Rotary club or another organization with a long track record there. “That way if any bad stuff was going to show up, it would have already shown up,” he says. “One of the projects I work on in Mexico has been there for 27 years.” Rotary International conventions and project fairs are good places to find host partners.

But the most important aspects are the ownership, the partnership, and the communication. To achieve those, approach with more questions than answers. Ask the people what their community needs. Then ask what they think is the best way to meet that need. And then ask if that’s what the project will accomplish. Beginning with that attitude is the best way to ensure the effort will serve the greatest number of people for as long as possible.

“We like to see projects where, once you are done with it, it goes on for a long time,” Somji says.

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