Getting to the point of development.

When I started this job, my office was a desk in the vestibule. There was no privacy or place for my co-worker and so the enterprising support staff enclosed a veranda, put in carpet and windows and made me an office. It has a beautiful view out to the trees, it is very light and spacious. It is also very poorly sheltered from the weather, so it is currently rather like a solar oven. The same capable support staff then offered to install an air-conditioner. We generally don’t use these, as they don’t fit with our lean operational mentality, but given the location and un-usableness of my office, we agreed.

Well I remember the moment when Z finished installing the AC. He looked at me and said, ‘There, it is installed. Of course, you can’t use it though.’

‘Eh? what do you mean?’

‘We don’t have enough power in the office to run it. If you use it, it will blow all the fuses.”

‘Did you know this when before you installed it?’

‘Yes, but I was told to install it.’

Sure enough, we turned it on and five minutes later, the fuses all blew. I started wondering how this could have transpired, and worked out that it was possible only because of a kind of fragmented thinking, that says, ‘My job is installing X. The point of my job is to install X, not to achieve outcome Y. Outcome Y is someone else’s problem, not really connected to my role.’

Of course, the point of putting in an AC is to cool a room. The point is not its neat installation, but the outcome of a cool room. A well installed air conditioner is pointless, if it cannot be used. Of course, a poorly installed air conditioner may not work also, but the ultimate test of the activity is that the goal be fully reached.

This incident reminded me of when I worked in development projects in the North of Afghanistan. The UN gave a contract to an NGO to dig 50 or so wells in a district. Their engineers had determined that there was water at 40m, so the terms of the contract allowed for drilling the wells to 40m, and all the related costs of pumps, shafts, cement etc.

It soon became clear to the NGO that there was no water at 40m – such surveys have to be done at the right time of year – ie, at the end of summer – September or October, before the rains and the snow-melt. Otherwise you get false high water table readings. The NGO went back to the UN and said, ‘There is no water at 40m, we need to drill to 60m’. The UN staffer (not an Afghan), astonishingly, said, ‘No, the contract you have is to drill and install wells at 40m. That is what you are contracted to do.’

It is exactly the same thinking as occurred around the installing of my air conditioner. The point, according to the UN, was the installation. And logically, if this project had gone ahead on those terms, at the end, a report could be written that would confirm that 50 wells had been drilled to 40m depth and pumps installed, etc. But the real point of a well, is permanent, clean, accessible water. If you don’t have that, you have nothing. Or, you have worse than nothing, you have material waste and deepening cynicism.

The NGO went away and drilled a few more wells to 40m and then couldn’t abide this foolishness and idiocy, stopped, and then from its own budget, made up the difference to drill the wells down to 60m, or however deep was required. They also ensured that the water was useable – not salty or bitter or contaminated. I think they also undertook to do some WASH education and well maintenance amongst the population, something that was also not part of the UN plan.

This story is bad enough that it could be fiction, but it is not. I know the people involved, I know the NGO and a year after that I worked in the UN, and saw how such disconnected, wrong-heading thinking and planning could occur.

So at one level, I have a nicely installed, but pointless AC. In a district in Northern Afghanistan, they almost had nicely installed, pointless wells. And all over this country, I see similarly projects being implemented disconnected from the larger goals of development. The goal of a school is that education take place, but this country has many schools that are well built, but poorly located, and consequently, empty. The goal of job training, is a job, but in Uruzgan, the Australian army has built a wonderful trade school, where local men are being trained as plumbers, carpenters and electricians. There is, however, no market for their skills anywhere in the province. In some of the development projects I manage, there is an assumption that health education activities will lead to improved health, with nothing else needed. Or that building nice latrines means people will use them, and that disease vectors will therefore reduce. Such simplistic, disconnected thinking may apply in some kind of utopian settings, but not in complex environments like this.

Where this occurs, people of initiative find their own solutions. If you travel through the Hazarajat, you can see empty school buildings, and children being taught under a mulberry tree, close to their homes and their families. I leave the doors and windows open, use a small Pakistani fan and sweat.

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