Monday, May 19, 2014

Critical success factors for sustainable projects in developing countries.

A typical day at the dump
for a 12 year old girl:
collecting cans and
plastic bottles
It is hot and dusty as I am digging a drain for the concrete sink used at the elementary school, which is situated in El Limonal, the little community that literally lives from the waste at the dump in Chinandega, a city in the northwestern part of Nicaragua. In lieu of sewers, wastewater is “recycled” from the sink by draining it into a big pit with volcanic rock, which is plentiful in this area. The sink was relocated because we are building a feeding center at the school in addition to a small library. Over the past several years we built several classrooms, alternating one every year with another NGO, up to the full seven classrooms needed to provide for a kindergarten and elementary school. This project has been a good example of a sustainable project unlike many others in this and other developing countries that are undertaken by both Rotarians and many other NGO’s.

Over the past 10 years we have worked as a team of Rotarians with guests in this area. We have learned a lot from the projects we have done. We did several construction projects, including five small rural clinics, nine class rooms, two feeding centers, three libraries, and have delivered many books, computers, medical supplies and equipment, totaling an investment of more than US $250K from fellow Rotarians and clubs. In order to be successful, there are critical factors that have to be met. I believe those listed below, which are based on our experience, are generally applicable for anyone undertaking a project in a developing country, whether it is in Latin America, Asia, or Africa.

Here is my top ten list:
1.       A one-year project is almost certainly to be unsustainable. Our first project in 2004 was a good example of fixing one of those. When we arrived in Chinandega, we told the local club that we wanted to get “our hands dirty” and do some work. They put us in contact with a local
Our first project: finishing up a project
abandoned by another team
missionary who had a project for us. Another team had spent a week in the area and built a large building with an oven that was supposed to be used by local mothers to bake bread. It was to be a kind of cooperative so they could sell bread at the market and supplement their incomes earned from collecting plastic and metal bottles at the city dump. The team had spent a week, finished three walls and left, as they had to return home to the USA. We had a pretty good team of several hard workers and finished the building work in a day.

Similarly, we saw several examples of partly finished projects that were “abandoned” by the donor organization, and because of the lack of follow up, were sitting idle or were only partially used. We also found some of our own projects having similar issues when we came back the next year. For example, we found that one of the clinics we built needed a canopy as the patients were sitting outside in the tropical heat as well as the tropical rainstorms. We found that the pharmacy that was part of another clinic was broken into three times over the past few months, so we had to install metal grates around the windows. We found that the swing set we built at the clinic caused a lot of injuries because there was no supervision (we are planning to move it to the school). There are many more examples of this. The bottom line is that there are so many unknowns and the culture and environment is so different from what we are used to, that it is very hard to get it right the first time, therefore follow up for another one to three years is critical for any project’s success and sustainability.
Typical example on "orphan"
project: non-functioning
water tower because
of a defect pump

2.       Community involvement is critical. Without a strong community commitment, one should think twice about starting a new project. We saw several examples where the community did not step up and rally behind a project and therefore were doomed to fail. For example, next to the neighborhood where we were working, there is a big water tower to store water from a well and make it available to the neighborhood. It was built a few years ago by a European NGO. The reason for it was that the surface water that people were using prior to the water installation is heavily contaminated by the run-off from the sugar cane fields, which is so poisoned with fertilizer that there is a high incidence of miscarriages and birth defects in the children born in that region.  However, the pump of the tower broke and needed to be repaired, but the community had failed to organize itself to charge a few pennies each time people used the water to create a maintenance and repair fund. As a result, people are back to using the poor quality surface water.

The local rotary club is a critical partner as they typically know if a neighborhood is well organized and likely be able to sustain projects that are started in their community. A strong community looks after its assets, for example most of the clinics we built in those regions are always spotlessly clean (swept at least 2 times/day), have plenty of plants around them (which requires daily watering) and are relatively secure as the community is like a “neighborhood watch” looking out for people trying to steal anything they can.

Note that you need to make sure to tap the “true” community leaders, which are often local priests or church leaders or people actively distributing food or organizing activities. The “official” community leaders are, at least in Nicaragua and I suspect in many other countries, political figureheads who are only thinking about themselves and generally very much disliked by the community and therefore useless in many cases.

3.       Count on having an 80 percent success rate over multiple projects. To create sustainable, successful projects requires a lot of trial and error and you have to be prepared for 20 percent of those projects to serve as a learning experience for how to do them. Looking back over a 10-year period, 50 percent of our projects have been very successful. For example, providing a school at the dump that started with 60 kids being taught in the open air, and progressed to a seven classroom facility with a feeding center, library, and playground with a fence around it, which now draws four times as many kids as when it started. Another example is where we built a single classroom and another NGO’s built another classroom, toilets, a water system, fence and feeding center.

In contrast to these success stories, the first library we built was on the grounds of a hospital,
Grand opening of a feeding
The local official closed
it one year later.
which “annexed” the library the next year along with its computers meant for the children by the hospital’s greedy administrator. Similarly, a feeding center we built adjacent to that library was supposed to feed under-nourished children being discharged from the hospital to get them back on their feet, however the local politicians pocketed all of the money for the food themselves. Also, we found out that the first computers we gave to a couple of schools were not used because the teachers did not know how to use them, and they were either too embarrassed or did not have time and/or opportunities to learn. Next time we did better, we now only build libraries that are situated in a school, and as for computers we give to a school, we make sure there was a commitment from the technical college to teach the teachers. Learning from experiences is critical to doing better next time.

People lining up at the clinic we built
for a health assessment of their kids
including getting vitamins
 and parasite meds
4.       Support from the authorities is critical. It is really tempting to do projects that fly “under the radar” of the local authorities, however we found that in the long run, it pays off to try to get them engaged, even though it takes a lot of effort and time. Trying to meet with local authorities such as the ministry of education, health, or the mayor of the city, or governor of the state, is often a challenge as they sometimes consider many NGO’s to be nuisances causing additional work for them. However, coordination and allocation of resources by them is critical. As an example,  we were bringing a medical team to deliver parasite meds for the kids in a particular community, however, working with the local leaders we found out, that there had been another NGO not too long ago that had done exactly the same thing in that community. We had to change our destination at the last-minute. Another time, we found one of our clinics was still unoccupied one year after we had built it. When inquiring about it with
the ministry they told us that they did not have the staff available. In these types of cases, visiting the local officials by a small group of foreigners (us) seemed to help as a year later we found that the clinic was used for at least one day a week, and as of today it has been promised to be open two days a week. It often takes negotiation with the local authorities, for example, we provided  an A/C (a $1000 investment) in the local hospital to keep vaccines cool and prevent them from being wasted in return for the same officials providing staffing for a clinic that we had built. The A/C was a good investment, but honestly would not have been on the top of the priority list if we hadn’t
gotten the staff for our clinic in return.

5.       Anything needing supplies is pretty much doomed to fail or become useless. Another NGO installed a brand new digital X-ray system in the children’s hospital. This was a major improvement because the old system was out-of-date, had poor image quality, and many patients could not afford the cost of a film, which is a couple of dollars, equal to half a day’s pay in this country. However, if there is a critical case, the patient would be rushed together with the film to the capital, which is about three hours in an ambulance, so he or she could be taken care of right away. The idea was that instead of film, a paper printer would be used to print a copy, which is great idea except that a printer requires cartridges on a regular basis. Needless to say the printer was inoperable when we visited the site because the cartridge had run out. Similarly, we have seen plenty of donated sophisticated medical devices such as EKG’s that require a particular type of thermal sensitive paper that go unused once the paper is gone. We also saw a brand-new copier that was donated to a school that was not being used because there was no paper. Imagine if this would happen in the classroom of my grandkids here in the USA. The teacher would have either raised money from parents or bought a pack of paper for
Well stocked library,
unfortunately missing electricity,
and supplies, hence the
copy machine under the
cover (on left of picture)
maybe $7.50 herself. However, in Nicaragua, a typical teacher makes $250 a month, which is about $12.50 a day. A pack of paper is more than half of his or her daily wages. And this is just for one pack of paper, let alone of the other materials (pencils, etc.) they don’t get from the government. Similarly, we bought many posters for classrooms over the past few years that show the alphabet, tables, geography and maps, the human body, etc. These cost only a few dollars locally. However they are very rare, if one looks in typical classrooms, almost all of what is on their walls is handmade by inventive teachers because even a few dollars is out of

6.       Don’t assume any infrastructure and assume a harsh environment. If you are considering donating computers, forget about laptops as they are too fragile and can’t really deal with power surges and “dirty electricity.” Also, a desktop computer is easier to repair, for example if a power supply goes out or a hard disk needs replacement it is easier to get those components. Regarding keeping the temperature down, the best you can count on is having fans to keep the temperature somewhat reasonable (assuming you have reliable electricity). Using solar panels is challenging because of security concerns, i.e. they are hard to secure so they don’t get stolen. The people are so poor that they have taken the electricity cables from a water pump at our school, or even come out at night to unscrew the metal plates from the roof to sell. Internet access is very slow, expensive and unreliable.  We seem to keep viruses under control here in the US because of the regular security updates, however these computers are not under the same kind of rigorous maintenance and often get infected. Water is not a given either. Half of the clinics we built have no water, which is kind of amazing if you think about it.

7.       Developing countries have a different interpretation of the 4-way test. The Rotary 4-way test basically lays the ground rules for ethical behavior of Rotarians, however, in developing countries there is a lot of favoritism, borderline corruption and no respect for intellectual property rights. This line was crossed when I noticed that all of the computers we were providing as part of a Rotary district grant had bootlegged Microsoft Office software on it. I had to explain to my fellow host Rotarians, who argued that this is “common practice” in this region, that Bill Gates himself is a billion dollar donor to Rotary causes and that cheating his company out of a few hundred dollars for software is not only unethical but undermines important friendships. I don’t think they got the message but I know now to pay better attention next time and to make sure that any computer has either a free open source alternative or that we build in the cost of the software when we do the costing. Interestingly enough, a fellow Rotarian who was a member of the club sponsoring this particular district grant provided the computers.

8.       Have multiple donors and a strong support team. Our core team consists of three North Texas Rotary clubs that have committed to allocate funds every year. In addition, there are several other clubs that donate once every few years, or only once or twice. The problem is that every year the leadership of a Rotary club changes and priorities and budgets change with them. Even in my own club I have had fluctuations in funding of more than 100 percent, i.e. from $5k to $12k, which makes it hard to plan and commit to the receiving community projects a year in
This clinic was built through a
 partnership of six donor clubs
together with the club in the host country
advance. By having multiple clubs participating, it evens out those funding changes. The same applies for the support team, it is important to have several committed people on the team that are willing to assist in raising the funds and who are willing to pay their own airfare and hotel costs to travel many years in a row. Finding those committed people is not as hard as it may seem, as anyone who ever gone on one of these trips knows, as soon as you go once you become “hooked,” because you see with your own eyes the impact we make. The hardest part for me was the first three or four years of building the team and convincing many to travel with us.

Most of our medical brigades are in
the open air or best case under a canopy.
Our pediatrician here sees a local
family for a basic health check. 
9.       Partnering with NGO’s is important but hard. I learned a lot about NGO’s working in this developing country. For one, they often are multi-billion dollar businesses, and they don’t talk to each other or work together, and many of them run a very high overhead rate, meaning for every dollar that is donated, 10, 20, or even up to 50 percent is spent on overhead, offices, staff, travel, cars, etc. In contrast, we did a few medical “brigades” by taking a pediatrician who saw a few hundred kids in the poor neighborhoods during our trip, handing out parasite meds and multivitamins and looking for any obvious problems and prescribing antibiotics or other medications as needed. Our pediatrician, who was wonderful, paid her own way, we just bought the medications, which amounted to about $500 for the week. When trying to recruit physicians to go with us, I encountered a few who expected to be paid for their full airfare and hotel. Well, that is typically not how Rotary works, it is people-to-people, every dollar we raise for construction projects or supplies is spent dollar-for-dollar on those items, not a penny goes to overhead, travel or anything else. I looked at several requests from NGO’s for joint projects, e.g. for building a sewer or water supply, but in all those proposals there appears to be this very vague line item that basically pays for overhead. For example, a couple of times we saw nice a high-end SUV cruising the dump of Chinandega, stopping now and then as a man in a very nice white suit got out of the car, looked at a project, and as soon as it got too hot, got back into the
air-conditioned SUV and ran off to his next project. They rarely talked with us while we were mixing cement and looking dirty or preparing chicken and rice for a few hundred kids. So, I learned that it is best to partner with them at an arm’s length. For example, we agreed that each of us would build one classroom every year in a poor community and we would exchange information, plans, vision and experiences. But I would never fund one of their projects or fund anything jointly.

10.   Don’t support free-standing feeding centers. Our experience with feeding centers has spanned multiple years. The problem is that everyone’s first gut reaction, when seeing so many hungry kids, is to feed them. That is exactly what we did the first year we did a construction project. We told our local coordinator, a missionary who worked there for many years and lived there with his family, about wanting to feed the kids, and I remember the expression on his face when he said, “Really? ok if that is what you want to do, we’ll do it.” So, we bought the food, got the community involved to prepare it, and almost created a riot. We had to physically make a human chain of volunteers to get all those hundreds of kids in line and organized. We had kids come up that did not have a bowl, and they would take big banana leaves with them and we would scoop in the chicken and rice into the banana leaves.
So, next year we decided to do it differently and we went to a “ticket” system. We gave the community leaders a few hundred tickets that they could distribute in the community. However, we found that many people came to us with no ticket, and we suspected some heavy-duty favoritism was going on.
These kids are on their way to
the feeding center; they should
be in school instead
in order to have a chance
to escape the dump.
Next, we decided to use an existing feeding center, and we found a lady who was cooking in her backyard twice a week, and participated with her in her distribution. She was cooking on an open fire with heavy smoke and had no facility for the kids to sit and eat, so we actually built her two stoves and a table, chairs and a canopy the year after. In the meantime we were building a school in that community and in talking with the teacher, we found out that a major
incentive to get kids into school was the fact that they were fed at noon. So, here we were, building and supporting a feeding center that undermined the primary incentive used to get the kids to go to school.
This year we built a feeding center at the school, and that is where we fed the kids and teachers and had a great meal of chicken, rice, and veggies, cooked by the local community together with our help. When the kids were being fed, the teacher locked the gates so no one could get out and take the food home where it would be taken by parents or siblings. That is the best and only way to feed children. I stopped by at the feeding center we built a few years back, it is one of five (!?) in that neighborhood, supported by very well-meaning churches and other NGO’s. I would argue that the food that they provide is not sustainable and likely will not benefit the kids in the future of that area.

These are my top ten recommendations, there are many more, but in my opinion, these are the most important. I truly believe that Rotary is the perfect NGO as it is people-to-people with very little, if any overhead for projects, which is unlike most other organizations. That is also why I joined Rotary about 12 years ago; it provides a framework to build peace and better friendships. It also provides life-changing experiences, especially for young adults as we typically take high school and college students with us. Sustainability is how systems endure and remain diverse and productive. In my opinion, we can only do that by learning and working with the local clubs as closely as we can, and by getting our hands dirty!

Herman Oosterwijk, international project coordinator Denton Rotary club.


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