photo: Tommaso Meli/Creative Commons
Earlier this week The Guardian ran a story about how critically important but "unsexy" water and sanitation projects in many developing nations are being starved of funding as money and attention goes to other projects.
At the deep center of all this, as is the case with other sustainable development issues, is the ego.The original article states, citing comments from the World Bank and WaterAid:
Aid to give people in developing countries access to clean water and sanitation has been shrinking as a proportion of global aid budgets, new research has shown, with the result that more than a billion people will not get the help they were promised by rich countries under the millennium development goals.
Instead, donors are restricting aid to "sexier" projects such as schools and hospitals - even though the benefits of those are diminished if their recipients have no clean water or toilets.
Because of this the MDG of halving by 2015 the number of people without access to basic sanitary facilities will be missed "by a long way."
The Guardian piece goes into all sorts of logistical reasons why donor aid has shifted and what it will mean for the health and human development of those people remaining without basic sanitation.
But it's really the "unsexy" versus "sexy" part that is at the heart of this.
It's far easier to stand in front of a school and say 'I did this', 'my money did this'. It's much more satisfying to put your name on a hospital and puff up your chest thinking you did something good. In both cases, you probably did do something good, or at least likely did something good. Hospitals and schools are worthy things to invest in, no doubt about it.
It's far less satisfying, perhaps to the physical difficulty involved, to stand in front of a new functioning sewer or water supply system and say 'I did this'.
Doing so would many times require standing in front of what wasn't there rather than what was--standing in front of a wall without stains of urine on in, small piles of feces at the bottom, the telltale stench of open toilet in the air. It would require standing on a street and explaining that there used to be an overflowing open sewer in the gutter over there to the left, rather than something covered and non-putrid.
Who wants to hold a press conference, turn on a simple tap and drink a glass of water, unconcerned that the water might upset the stomach, then have to explain that the owners of the house (well actually, in all likelihood, the women) had to walk to a public tap and carry heavy jugs of water for home use on a daily basis? It's entirely anti-climactic, even if of amazingly broad import.
I'm convinced the same issue here, the love of the ego to attach itself to projects that are self-rewarding to that sense of I, is at play in why large hydropower projects get built instead of smaller, more sustainable but far less visually dramatic. It's why big solar power plants attract more attention than decentralized solar panels on every roof. It's far easier for politicians, for donors, to stand in front of the massive than the appropriately scaled. It far more strokes the ego to look up at the apparent majesty of the big than the more humble yet often more effective small thing.