In February, I traveled to Santa Cruz del Quiche in Guatemala with Water For People for a chance to see its work firsthand. Going into the trip, I was skeptical, and I had a lot of questions. Successfully implementing sustainable clean water and sanitation projects in rural areas of developing countries is difficult work. It’s also difficult to tell the story of that work in a sound bite. Yet many non-profit organizations working in the sector try to do so, with a simplified message that infrastructure alone is the solution to improving lives. The message that often gets promoted is that building projects = clean water = healthier, better lives. While that message is straightforward and appealing to supporters of the work, it’s not very accurate, and it leaves a number of questions unanswered. What happens after a project is constructed? Who ensures that water keeps flowing? How do we know a project is having its intended impact and that people’s lives are actually improving? Do beneficiaries understand the benefits of clean water access? Do they know how to use their ecological sanitation latrines and understand how to practice personal hygiene? I knew Water For People was working to address these questions, and I looked forward to learning the answers during my weeklong visit.
There were many good experiences over the course of that week–visiting schools where students were learning the importance of healthy hygiene habits, seeing the large water system in Parraxquin that had been financed primarily by the community through the efforts of its leaders–but it was the final project visit that impacted me the most. In Las Canoas, which seemed to be the poorest community that we visited, we spoke with community leaders about their newly completed ecological sanitation (“ecosan”) latrine project. Ecosan latrines separate and collect both urine and fecal matter in ways that allow the waste matter to be reused as a pesticide and fertilizer (in the case of urine) and compost (in the case of fecal matter). We learned that the community had been hesitant at first to embrace this new technology. Out of the 90 households in the community, only 24 had chosen to participate in the project. Yet now that these 24 ecosan latrines had been completed and were in use, the remaining 66 households were interested in joining in the project. With a group of 12 donors watching and 5 staff members present, including headquarters staff from Denver, the community leaders asked if Water For People would return to the community to construct another 66 ecosan latrines. I knew this was a significant moment. How would Water For People respond? Would the answer be consistent with its model, or would it be the easy, donor-friendly answer that responds to the immediate problem but doesn’t provide a long-term, sustainable solution? Would the staff visiting from headquarters provide the answer, or would it be the Guatemalan field staff that would respond?
Watching as everyone, including the headquarters staff, looked to the director of the Guatemalan field staff to respond was probably the most meaningful moment of my visit. He took charge of answering the question, saying that Water For People would continue the conversation with the community, and that Water For People was looking for committed involvement and investment on the part of the remaining 66 households before returning to assist with the expansion of the project. He explained that Water For People wanted to empower the community members by providing them with the awareness, training, and capacity building to really understand, and be able to improve, their sanitation circumstances themselves rather than by just constructing the infrastructure for them and being done with it. He gave an honest answer in line with Water For People’s model, rather than the answer the donors might have wanted to hear in that moment, when you just feel a desire to do something to make people’s lives better right then and there, even if it won’t solve the problem over the long term.
Why did his answer matter so much to me? Why is it important that the field staff have autonomy and that the local communities feel empowered? Because without these two things, projects are much more likely to fail. Giving authority to the field staff to devise the most appropriate solutions for the rural Guatemalans that they interact with on a daily basis means that the projects being implemented are much more likely to serve their purpose. It means that Water For People isn’t just implementing the projects that are the easiest to market to donors but instead is implementing the projects that are truly needed. These projects may not be the easiest to fund, or the quickest to implement, but they are the surest to succeed. This implementation also has at its core the empowerment of local communities. Through their empowerment, the communities take ownership of their projects, meaning that the communities take responsibility for a portion of the construction costs, the ongoing management and maintenance of the projects, and the continuing costs of the projects.
Aren’t these people poor, though? Is it fair to ask them to pay to construct the projects and keep them running? It may not feel fair to us, but don’t we want to support projects that last for the long-term? Don’t we want communities to have the tools to solve the issues they face, rather than making them eternally dependent on our feelings of charity? The goal is to empower communities to become self-sufficient in meeting their water and sanitation needs, so that they’ll no longer need to look to outside support. Water For People is working toward that goal by growing the capacity of local government and community leaders–by teaching them how to use their projects, fix them when they break, practice good hygiene and sanitation, and ask for a little money from their community members to pay for maintenance and ultimately pay to expand or replace projects when their useful lives end. These solutions are designed to solve the problem of clean water and sanitation access. These solutions are how Water For People is working to ensure that Everyone Forever has clean water and sanitation access.
Water For People works to build a world where all people have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and where no one suffers or dies from a water- or sanitation-related disease. Visit www.waterforpeople.org for more information about Water For People and its work.