good development – are the stats real?

When I went to college, my dad told me to learn statistics. I laughed at him. Then I learned statistics. Now I understand numbers and give others his advice. I say this as I am always surprised by how people create statics that make their programs look great. I like to believe that they do this because they believe in what they are doing and simply do not know any better; these options are better than the alternatives.

This article and others describe how the Millennium Villages Project is not making the great strides that it claims to have made. The project is based on a premise of dumping a lot of money directly into a small area across a number of sectors over ten years. Someday we can talk about how this is not my favorite development model and also why a few of the ideas are solid. Like so many things, development is not straightforward or simple. However, today we are talking about statistics, so take a moment to read the articles to appreciate why the details of statistics, the hows and the whys behind the numbers, matter.

If you understand numbers, you can sell almost anything to someone who does not. I promise to not do that to you. Instead, I will do my best to explain truth through stories and numbers when needed. And, I will tell you that if you get a chance, you should take a course or two in statistics.

a journey in the northern forgotten district: part 2

What the Northern Forgotten District (NFD) lacks in infrastructure or amenities it makes up for in diversity and complexity. Our crisscrossing and backtracking path took us through incredibly diverse lands. The grasslands were lush and seemed ready for animals to graze.The sandy plains were littered with small rocks and tough shrubbery and trees preparing for the next drought. The hills around Korr were covered with sand, rocks, and tough plants with an ever-present wind to keep things cool. The top of Mount Kulal was protected dense forest and, when I saw it, was regularly hidden by a cloud. Not far from the shadows of Mount Kulal was Lake Turkana, the Jade Lake. I was told that Lake Turkana, an alkaline lake filled with fish and crocodiles, is the largest desert lake in the world (though a soon to be constructed dam in Ethiopia will change this). Its shores were surrounded by volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes with the random and rare shrub or tree. Not far inland was an oasis – a natural spring surrounded by grasses and palm trees.

Grasslands, forests, an oasis and a lake – not exactly the classic images of a desert, but remember that I was also journeying in the midst of the longest and heaviest rainy season in the last 20 or 30 years. The Chalbi Desert, just north of where we were, was not crossable because parts were flooded.

Nearly everyone who lives in the NFD is a pastoralist. The primary exceptions are the few fishermen along Lake Turkana. The tribes of the region include the El Molo, Borana, Gabru, Ariael, Turkana, Samburu and the Rendille. Could I tell you how to distinguish one tribe from another or where to find each? No. I was told much of this, but my small brain can only handle so much at one time. I can tell you that the Turkana are slowly moving into lands held by other tribes.

It seemed that all the moran, or warriors (aged mid-teen to late 30’s, these men were not married), of the tribes wore brightly colored wraps and as many necklaces, bracelets and rings as I have in my entire collection. Then there were the headdress that often included small plastic flowers and feathers. They stuck out like peacocks against the children, women, and elders. I would not mess with these moran and their sticks, knives, and machetes. But I was told that the Turkana warriors are not so brightly adorned. Is this one way they win battles?

These tribes traditionally walk long distances from watering spots to grazing land. Cows, sheep, goat, donkeys, and camels cover these distances with their herdsmen and moran – sometimes as much as 3 days each direction – week after week. And that distance is critical. Some boreholes have been drilled in some of the good grazing land. This took away what seemed to be a water problem… and the nomadic communities moved the area. Then, in a classic act of the tragedy of the commons, the land was overgrazed. When arid or desert lands are overgrazed it is difficult, sometimes impossible, for the land to recover. A short-sighted solution is now part of the problem.

As we left Korr for the last time children, mostly boys, who were in secondary school were trying to find rides out of town to get back to school after the holidays. These lucky children each represented families working hard and selling animals to keep a them in school – particularly past an elementary education. There is the hope that these children will find jobs in the cities and support their families by sending money home. Charles, one of the men working on the FH water project I was visiting, was one such case. He went through school and has returned to help his family – both financially and through development. It does happen, but it is rare. Many more are forever lost to the cities fighting for the available jobs, which never seem to be enough to go around.

And so I wonder about false hope. Why do children have to buy and wear drab school uniforms and leave their traditional dress behind? What does a primary school education teach a child if he does not continue and leave the village for a city job? It seems that traditional math, english, and science could be transformed into basic husbandry, marketing, and business – an education that could help each become more successful in their current life. Which makes me wonder if education is always valuable.

I do not have an answer to any of the complexities of this region (I have talked about just a few of them here), and I know that what seem like simple, obvious answers are often blind to the complexities. What this journey has left me with is an appreciation and respect for the families who live in the NFD. This is not to gloss over and idealize their culture or lifestyle – it is hard and difficult, and there are cultural practices that I could not adopt. But these people have survived for centuries, and they and the land live on. I also have a deep respect for my colleagues at FH who work in this region. Simply getting from one location to another is difficult, much less trying to find a solution that can not only be sustained by communities, but also that is environmentally sustainable. It is a system of give and take and much conversation. It is slow going.

I hope to return to the NFD by Land Rover in the future. This year I will likely fly over the land and visit some of the communities we never made it to. But there is something wonderful and alluring about traveling wide open spaces by car that provides a respect and an understanding of the land that is missed by plane. This was a grand journey and I hope for more in the future.

seeing stones

“Once you have seen a stone, it cannot harm you.” ~paraphrase of Rwandese proverb

Today was spent with a Rwandese colleague and friend discussing monitoring and evaluation. Not exactly most people’s idea of a grand day. Given the choice, my workday would have been filled with visiting projects because being in the field fills me up and reminds me why I love my job. Instead, today was a reminder of why hours spent in meetings, days spent in the office, and seemingly weeks creating plans are worth it.

In the midst of a seven hour conversation, my friend told me of a Rwandese proverb. Farmers spend hours working their fields with hoes. To turn the soil, they grasp their hoe with both arms and use the strength of their body to lift their hoe high and push it deep into the soil. When the hoe comes down on an unseen rock, the shock of the hoe hitting the rock reverberates through their entire body, hurting to the core. But, if the rock is seen, the farmer can avoid the rock and the ensuing pain.

Most of the time I tell stories about partners doing amazing work and communities being transformed. Stories and images that inspire. But we spend a lot of time looking for stones that could cause roadblocks and pain along the way – stories that are untold. Weeks, months, and years invested in the details and in communities. Stones mean that a water project takes longer to implement, a latrine is not constructed quite right, communities are not transformed, expansion happens faster than is sustainable, or that needed funds are not raised. Monitoring and evaluation plans are about looking for stones. It is not glamorous but is critical to success. And so tomorrow will be spent just like today: seven hours of conversation looking for stones.

This entry was written for Blood:Water Mission. Check them out at

the nobodies

Picture 1

I feel as if I have recently taken a breather from weightier books, and I am diving back in again. This poem comes at the beginning of the introduction to Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power:  Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor, and it struck deep chords inside of me. It struck deep inside because I like to believe that I do not classify people as nobodies, but the truth is that it is a constant battle.

In my work I have to ask the questions: How many people will a certain project reach? What is this project’s cost per person? Are we meeting our numbers? Or even this… let’s expand the merchandise we sell to include local handicrafts made by some of our partners. Each question is well founded – we want to reach as many people, as many individuals, as many communities as we can with every dollar raised. We want to be responsible with our funding. We want to hear stories of people no longer skipping school to carry water or girls staying home because they are menstruating and have no private toilet facilities. We want to support local groups who use their art, their crafts, to create income and become self-sustaining. Behind each number and question is a story of a person who is not a nobody, but we must fight to make these bodies the driving force, not the numbers.

And so today I am excited to dive into heavier literature that forces me to think, to remember why I do what I do, and to re-examine and expand my own thought processes. To be challenged is a good thing.

review: mountains beyond mountains

Title: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

Author: Tracy Kidder

Genre: biography, nonfiction

Form: paperback

Recommended: yes

Thoughts: Dr. Farmer works to provide medical care to the rural poor in Haiti, is a doctor of infectious disease in Boston, a Harvard professor, and works to change modern medicine’s view of treating the diseases of the poor. Kidder spent a lot of time with Dr. Farmer as they travelled the globe, walked mountains in Haiti, and corresponded extensively. It is from this perspective that Kidder tells Dr. Farmer’s story. I once heard someone say that this book is annoying because it makes Dr. Farmer out to be hero – someone impossible to emulate and yet you are left feeling like you should be trying. I think that person was slightly right, and that annoyance means that it is worth reading because there is something worth learning, pieces of life worth living, that are contained in this book. So, be inspired and be annoyed all at once.

review: when helping hurts

Title: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself

Author: Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert

Genre: development

Form: paperback

Recommended: Definitely

Thoughts: Corbett and Fikkert talk about poverty and community development in a refreshing, and, honestly, beautiful way. In this book the poor are held with a dignity that is often denied them. The authors use personal stories thus avoiding pointing fingers at other people’s failures and also provide clear steps to take for everyone involved in development. Whether you help at a homeless shelter or a food pantry or are involved in large-scale international development projects, you should read this book.

it’s just not simple

In Southern Rwanda, I visited the villages of Kanyonyera and Rubugu where I saw water lines and water taps recently constructed by a local partner organization. The cement platforms and structures were well constructed, and the piping and hardware well chosen and installed. A seemingly ideal image of water provision in a rural region.
In Kanyonyera, a woman by the name of Pellina told us of the value of this water tap. She said that they used to get water at the lake, which was dirty and was a long way to walk. This problem was compounded by children collecting water who could only stand on the edge of the lake, where the water was the dirtiest. To top it off, every year children would die from drowning in the lake. Pellina was happy about the clean, flowing water at the tap. 

A little while later I noticed Pellina, deep in conversation, did not seem happy. I found out that the mud bricks near the water tap were hers. She planned to build a house, but the land she was going to use was taken to build the water tap. Now she had clean, flowing water, but no place to build her house. In such circumstances, the Rwandan government works to compensate the individual and provide alternate land. But, that was still in the process of happening, and today Pellina was stuck in the middle of the complexities of development. She had mud bricks to use, she had access to clean water, and she had no place build her home.

Clean water provision is so simple on paper. People need water, and water is provided. People walk long distances carrying large quantities of water by hand or by head, and now they walk short distances. People had little water to spare for laundry and hand washing, and now more is available. It would seem that the simple provision of clean water would solve so many problems. And yet we were told of a another village where a team (not funded by Blood:Water) came in and drilled a well. Fantastic…except the people never used the well. I don’t know if the water did not taste good, did not smell good, was in a politically poor location in the village, or if there was some other cultural issue. Bottom line is that a well was drilled but was not used; a ‘simple’ solution did not work. 

hope through soccer

Sometimes I struggle when I know I should write about one thing and I feel uninspired. It is these times that I wish a writer would modify my words filling them with eloquence that would better express what is in my head and my heart. It is not that I am uninspired by what I should write about–quite the contrary. What I do not know is how to take such a fantastic and inspiring series of events and present them in an image that will portray a piece of what I experienced.

On Saturday the final game of a 13 team, 52 game, soccer tournament was held in the midst of a grand ceremony. This tournament was a dream of our partner in Northern Uganda who saw young men being idle in their villages unsure of how to fill their time and lacking hope after 10 years in IDP camps (internally displaced people camps). Yes, stability is returning to the region, safety is the norm rather than the sacred, and villages are being rebuilt. But the rebuilding of a village is easier on paper than in reality, and hope is a magical tool. And so our partner dreamt up and created a soccer tournament where they fund uniforms and soccer balls, and there are prizes of bulls and goats to eat, and a beautiful trophy for the winner to display. Participation requires the building of latrines and hand washing locations, and soccer scores include community transformation in terms of WASH (water, hygiene, and sanitation) and half-times are filled with song and dance about WASH created and performed by the players. I could never come up with a plan so brilliant–not in my most wild imagination.

The day of ceremonies included a parade of the players through town, demonstrations of latrines, washing stations, and hand pumps. Officials present included not only local and regional officials, but also the Minster of Water and Environment of Uganda; she was impressed by what she saw. The final soccer game was exciting and demonstrated the impressive skills of the players. The song and dance were both beautiful and inspiring.

As we visited communities in the two days following the ceremony, we saw transformation beginning in communities. We saw biosand filters and hand pumps and hand washing stations and dish racks. We saw hope and we saw soccer players filled with ownership of their program. One year. This program has only been running for one year and already the impact is tangible. In the coming years the program will grow–the hope is 60 teams within three years.

I wish I could capture these events for you. Smiling women. Laughing children. Welcoming men. Stories of triumph and a sense of pride. Over it all, hope. I am at a loss of how to share this, of how to construct this image, and so I close simply wishing that I could have transported you to a soccer field in Northern Uganda for a day of celebration.

on travel and biosand filters

In case you were wondering, I have not forgotten you. It is simply that travel has been a bit consuming as of late. As I travel with Blood:Water job, I will post on occasion on our Blood:Water blog. My best guess is that you don’t read their site, so I figure the least I can do is post those entries here as well. This was written while I was in Zambia:

Today I returned from village tired from my time in the sun, from laughing with the children, and from sharing knowing looks with the women. The afternoon was spent installing 15 biosand filters in village, not long ago an informal settlement outside of Ndola, Zambia. Like so many technologies, the construction of a biosand filter is relatively simple: a concrete exterior created in a metal mold, a small pipe to carry water, layers of washed gravel and sand covered by a metal plate, all sealed by a wood cover. This simple technology has the potential to work for 15-20 years, is inexpensive to produce, and can reduce waterborne disease by 97%. But the expertise to create the filters and the money for the materials and labor is not enough. No where near enough. It takes education and the building of strong relationships to change long-established practices within a community. Though this takes longer than simply placing a filter in a home, it comes with the hope and possibility that the filter is the first step towards continued change, change that will come from the strength within the village.

For example, in a village not far from where I was today, where biosand filters have also been installed in some of the homes, our partner’s ongoing relationships and conversations with the locals led to a realization that the large garbage dumps within their village needed to be moved as they bred disease. The locals decided to move the dumps and clean their village. The combination of these efforts has led to such a great reduction of waterborne disease in the community that they said that, last year, for the fist time in their history, there was no cholera within the community.

Yes, a biosand filter is a fantastic technology, but it is the education and the relationships that are key to long term success. It is because of these things I am hopeful that, if I return to Zambia in 10 or 20 years, these communities will not only have clean water, but will also have taken significant other steps to reduce disease and further community development. Tonight I turn to bed tired, but hopeful.


This past week I found myself in Arusha, a town near Mount Kilimanjaro to attend a conference. The conference itself was interesting, but beyond that also I got to go on a site visit to a school and a Massai women’s group, and visited the Rwanda War Tribes Tribunal. The most interesting thing at the school was the biofuel that was being used to in the kitchen (the school was boarding school). The biofuel was made of compacted sawdust. It is less expensive than the alternatives (wood, charcoal, or kerosene), burns extremely hot and for long periods of time, and produces no smoke. Absolutely fantastic!

The Massai women sung and danced for us. They make bracelets and necklaces to sell to tourists…seeing as all the money goes directly to the women, I couldn’t help but buy a few things. The women watched as I tried on different bracelets and admired the necklaces. Then when a woman pulled a necklace off her neck similar to the ones I was admiring, it was impossible to not buy it.

The Rwanda War Crimes Tribunal has been going since the end of the Rwanda genocide. As it is in Arusha and open to the public, it seemed that I should attend. Most of the people wore black robes, and one even had a wig. I sat listening with my headphones to the translators as the lawyers, judges, and witness went between French and English. Nothing earth shattering, but it was good to simply sit in a trial and see how they are done.