Admitting Failure: Water Groups Stress Metrics to Improve Aid

The problem isn’t just that water pumps break: Lacking monitoring, they stay broken.

It’s not often you see an organization broadcast its own failures, but A Child’s Right has made the practice a point of pride. The development NGO installs clean water systems at orphanages and schools in the developing world. Sometimes those systems break, and when they do, the organization tells the world about it.

Earlier this month, A Child’s Right launched a transparency system called ProvingIt that allows donors to see exactly where their money is going in close to real time—including when it is being wasted.

On the main page, there’s a boastful badge with the overall success rate, but when you click to “learn more,” you don’t get a scroll of smiling faces with clear water in branded plastic cups. You see the word “failure” atop each site that has lost access to clean water. It’s as though the charity is shaming themselves into working faster, and shaming everyone else for not doing the same.

“We’re going to keep ‘failed’ on that homepage,” says founder Eric Stowe. “We feel that donations are investments, and investments need to be tracked.”

This transparency is a big change for the sector. With new technologies and more demanding donors, the water development world is shifting from telling sob stories and making big promises about changing lives with $35 donations. As aid agencies and private donors alike ask for proof of success, organizations that deliver water are scrambling to find ways to produce metrics and change the way they operate to become a little more businesslike and save even more lives.

One of many tragedies in the aid world is a child walking past a broken water pump to slurp up dirty water. More than 880 million people still don't have access to clean water, and 4,000 kids die every day because of water-related illnesses, many of them in communities where there could be (or where there was) clean water.

The problem isn’t just that these water pumps break: When they lack monitoring, they stay broken. At least 30 percent of water points are broken at any given time. “As mapping gets better, we’re starting to see it’s closer to 40 or 50 percent,” says Ned Breslin of Water for People. “If we’re only getting half, we should be ashamed. Once the water comes out of the tap, that’s the start of the project. That’s when it gets challenging.”

This has been a breakout year for water monitoring. Almost exactly 12 months ago, Breslin launched a mobile phone tool called FLOW that lets surveyors easily photograph water points and tag them with GPS coordinates in cloud-hosted databases—crucial for finding wells in places that don’t have street signs. He made the app open for all groups to use, and was rewarded with a deluge of participation.

The World Bank's water sanitation program used FLOW to track 7,400 water points in Liberia. Seventy enumerators on bikes rode to every water point in rural Liberia, giving the country’s government the ability to comprehensively assess, for the first time, water availability and which filter technologies are working.

Each time Water for People enters talks with a new group that wants to use FLOW, it highlights that the tool requires customization, something Water For People isn’t set up to handle. There's so much potential that Water For People is looking to pass off management of the app to another organization so they can focus on their own water projects rather than technical support.

One potential home for FLOW is the Netherlands-based AKVO Foundation. They’re building a broader platform to help development agencies become better storytellers, and in the process more transparent. “Think of it as an app store for development aid, that’s where I think this will go,” says Peter van der Linde, AKVO's co-founder and director. Van der Linde cited the group’s Akvopedia as one example of a product making it easier for aid groups to share knowledge about a variety of topics—including which kinds of water pumps work best based on past monitoring. His group supports all kinds of development organizations, but he says water is leading the way when it comes to hunting for failures as a way to improve.

“The risk is a lot of these systems are being developed and duplicating efforts,” van der Linde says. “It would be nice if any organization could have a ProvingIt without having to develop the software.” He’s trying to make open-source tools that anyone can use, a strategy A Child’s Right will employ as well.

These monitoring drum majors cry a frustrated plea for their slower peers to step up the pace. The conversation is certainly growing, and a small group of foundations, donors, and universities are planning to publish a set of metrics for the whole sector, comparing all organizations. “It will make it almost impossible to say you don’t monitor,” Breslin says. “Sometimes these efforts in the past haven’t been great, but this potentially has some real life.”

Photo courtesy A Child's Right

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