Fixing the Broken Wheel

By Jeremy King

As a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Puyo, Ecuador from 2007-2009, I learned fairly quickly that there were some serious flaws in how development work was being both paid for and managed. It was like a broken wheel of international development and funding.

Jeremy King with teaching science to kids in Puyo, Ecuador.

Jeremy King with teaching science to kids in Puyo, Ecuador.

Well-intentioned international organizations were pumping money into a system that was not adequately set up to effectively execute projects. Small NGOs on the ground were chasing grants so that they could keep their doors open. Communities and individuals, the supposed beneficiaries of the grants and the projects they funded, were usually left out of the planning and decision-making process. Projects failed and communities became irritated and more skeptical of outsiders, especially NGOs, yet the international organizations continued to send money.

For example, the small NGO I worked with received a large United Nations grant to implement a complex project that would combine eco-tourism, fish-farming, community mapping, sustainable forestry, environmental education, and sustainable agriculture. The project would be implemented in three small communities located about 45 minutes away from Puyo.

For many years, the NGO had “partnered” with these communities as a means of meeting grantmakers’ “community participation” requirements to secure funding for various projects ranging from eco-tourism to maternal health. The NGO really did want community buy-in, but the staff didn’t understand how to build real relationships with community members.

They followed the same top-down model most other NGOs used: the director would set up a meeting, tell the community there was potential for money for fish ponds, eco-tourism, what-have-you, and ask if they wanted to participate. Of course people would say yes, but when it came time to execute, no one would commit to the work because they had no stake in it, and there was no real oversight or accountability to the grantmaker.

Every once in a while a review team from the grantmaker would come to see the project. Their visits were usually scripted–we would show them only what we really wanted them to see. They’d spend a couple of hours in town and then move on to the next project they funded in some other part of the country/world. The sad thing is that I’m not sure the majority of the grantmakers really cared about the success of the project – they just wanted to see that money was spent, that it looked like something was being done.

The ponds for fish farming, like many other projects, had been already been funded by other organizations and never finished, yet the NGO continued to get money for them. The director was quite adept at relabeling projects and writing convincing grant reports. Each year we’d show grantmakers a half-finished pond on their visit, and each grantor thought that the work was the result of their grant, when in fact it was actually begun many years prior and never completed.

Why weren’t the projects ever finished?  Beyond the lack of community buy-in, the NGO didn’t have a  method for enabling the community to take charge of the project.

The best project we did actually worked because from the start we made it clear that the three communities involved had to do it themselves. The project involved composting rotten produce and other organic waste to improve poor soil and increase yield from the families’ vegetable gardens.

Interestingly, when we got money from the UN grant to build structures to process the compost, only one community managed to build a structure. The money was there but there was no clear delineation of responsibility, so most of the materials went unused.

Why did the one community succeed? For one, it was much smaller and consisted of just a few families, so they could assign roles among themselves and hold each other accountable. The community was also already doing other projects that they were driving—from the bottom-up—so the composting project was an add-on to other activities that they decided were important.

The upside of the U.N. grant, which I realized would lumber along and ultimately waste resources, was that I was able to develop some meaningful relationships with community members.  I spent a lot of time in very inspiring meetings discussing the work. These people, my friends, really wanted to make a difference in their communities. They wanted to build a better future for their children—they just didn’t have the experience to manage projects, and since no one was teaching them those skills or involving them in project planning, they had no real ownership.

But on those occasions when I saw communities take charge, projects often functioned less like a broken wheel and more like a well-oiled machine, and a little bit of targeted outside support went a long way.

Jeremy King served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Puyo, Ecuador from 2007 – 2009 and worked with an NGO whose staff of four focused primarily on environmental education, sustainable agriculture and forest conservation. He is currently Sustainability Coordinator for Denison University.

Mary Fifield