There's plenty of talk going on all the time about how people are planning on saving the world -- and not so much of how not to save it. Yet we'd likely have more efficient, more effective world-saving systems in place if we focused on that second topic. And so it is that 'How (Not) to Save the World" was the second discussion to take place at this year's Poptech conference. A series of major players in the philanthropy and NGO world held forth on well-intentioned ideas and strategies gone awry -- and they focused primarily on projects designed to provide clean water to developing nations. How and why do so many of these problems fail? The short answer is, as speaker Kevin Starr of Mulago notes, that it's too often the case that ideas simply don't get properly vetted. Too many projects that seem to be win-wins on paper -- say, a merry-go-round for children that simultaneously works as a water pump when played with -- don't end up being effective in real-world situations. Starr's talk focused on the need to spend more time evaluating projects in the NGO sphere, and determining whether or not they'll work.
That aforementioned merry-go-round, for example, was heavily invested in, and widely deployed in parts of Africa that were lacking access to clean water. The idea was that children would play with the device, pushing the levers around a pump, and would have a good time whilst extracting clean water from the well. Cute idea, to be sure. But after the equipment was installed, and the requisite photos were taken of the children using the device for the NGO's website, it was widely discovered that it simply wasn't working in the long term.
Children quickly got bored with the 'toy', and the wells either remained out of use, or were operated by women. In fact, this was found in a wide range of failed NGO water projects -- poorly executed or dysfunctional projects often ended up leaving women with the greatest burden, manning damaged wells or finding alternatives to provide water to the family.
So how many wells are the product of poorly vetted operations? How many wells around the developed world are inoperational? According to Ned Breslin, the next Poptech speaker, the number may be as high as 40-60%. Breslin is the CEO of Water for People, a group that's spearheading a project that gathers data from every angle on whether or not wells in the developing world are working. (I'll have more on Water for People soon, as I interviewed Breslin between talks yesterday)
But the question remains -- how do we avoid failing wells and shoddy projects in the first place? By shifting the focus to thoroughly vetting projects before they're funded; away from installing as many wells as possible to insisting on installing those that work -- and continue to work down the road. Starr explains in his Poptech talk above.
More on Poptech 2010
This is the Largest Model for Wildlife Conservation in the World
Living Better with Less: LifeEdited Debuts at Poptech
Intro to PopTech 2010 : Brilliant Accidents, Improbable Breakthroughs