Kevin Starr Calls on Philanthropic Sector to Recognize Development Malpractice

In his recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kevin Starr — managing director of the Mulago Foundation — reflects upon his trip to Ghana, where he was introduced to a number of different water treatment interventions that had reached the village of Kulaa. While there, Starr met with Saha, a nonprofit organization that addresses the issue of water contamination by setting up entrepreneurial women with the tools needed to sell filtered water for a reasonable price. Two days of clean water for a family of five costs about five cents. The organization adopts a nonprofit model in order to subsidize the initial business cost and provide ongoing support. However, this contribution works out to a modest $13 per person for 10 years of clean water. Saha monitors their businesses and has found the water to be clean and bacteria-free in 99% of cases.

Despite the success of Saha's program, the village of Kulaa was presented with three additional forms of water treatment over the following months. The government provided residents with free ceramic filters, which wound up clogged or broken in less than half a year; an American church group distributed LifeStraw Family gravity filters, which tested positive for E. coli and coliforms; and another NGO offered a filter which was also overly time consuming and contaminated. As Starr explains, “I thought we were going to hear about the difficulties of overcoming long-held customs or the challenges of running a business when you’re barely literate, but instead we sat under a tree talking to a slightly dazed-looking woman who told us of an exhausting uphill battle against the forces of good intentions.” Regardless of their good intentions, these interventions caused considerable harm. They not only threatened the lives of children, but also misdirected resources and attention away from an effective and sustainable solution.

Starr reaches three conclusions from this experience. First, he recognizes that there is a significant cost to failure; the failed initiatives in Kulaa caused more harm than doing nothing. Second, development interventions that require extensive training are likely to fail; Saha’s efforts were most effective in part because they were the most straightforward. And thirdly, develop work requires follow-up; providing an intervention without offering a system for repairs, replacement, and monitoring can result in unintended consequences. Starr calls on those within the philanthropic sector to recognize development malpractice and to act upon it: "If you see something, say something. If you become aware of someone planning/doing/funding stuff like this, talk to them, educate them, dissuade them... Don't let these things happen."

Read more at the Stanford Social Innovation Review.