Maintenance Matters

Funders of global development programs continue to incentivize construction. But the most cost-effective interventions often involve helping communities maintain what they already have.

 

Evan Thomas

December 2014

 

Driving along rural dirt roads in many developing countries, you see frequent evidence of the generous intent of global humanitarian aid agencies. Most tangible are hand-driven water pumps that dot the landscape. 

These pumps are the concrete and steel outputs of a global intent to provide more clean water to more people. Thousands, funded and implemented by organizations large and small, are installed every year in developing countries. 

But, sadly, you can never predict whether the next water pump you pass will be surrounded by people, often women and children, filling their jerry cans, or will stand as a decrepit artifact of wasted resources.

Studies show that between 30 and 80 percent of water pumps fail within a year of their installation. While the proximate failures may be a leaky seal, a broken riser, or a missing handle, these are only symptoms of the ultimate failure in how we fund, incentivize, and monitor these efforts. 

Some experts suggest that for the cost of installing a new hand pump, operation and maintenance could be funded on its neighbor pump for a century. Or, put another way, an implementer with 500 installed pumps, could choose either to install 100 new hand pumps in a year or to maintain the original 500 for 20 years. 

But the choice is possible only if funders can be persuaded to consider maintenance as interesting as new construction. 

Instead, funders continue to focus on construction, and sustainability is usually addressed through “participatory community development,” where local communities are, in theory, empowered to manage their own water supplies. In reality, this approach has often not resulted in cost effective interventions. 

And these challenges exist not just for hand pumps, but for a myriad of health and environmental interventions both in developing and developed countries. 

Some organizations are now testing alternatives that focus on outcomes rather than intent. Instead of pushing money toward projects based on promises, some implementers are showing how funders could support programs that demonstrate successful results and not just good intentions.

Technology can also play a role. Our team at Portland State University has designed sensors that are connected to cell phone networks to automatically report to the world how things are going with interventions like water pumps. 

With support from the U.K. Department for International Development and the GSM Association and in partnership with Living Water International and the Rwanda Ministry of Natural Resources, our team is testing new approaches. 

This summer we’re installing over 200 sensors and running a study of three different models for maintenance of hand pumps. We’re going to compare the current model of operation and maintenance against two others. One experiment is a “call us” model that requires communities to report pump outages, and the other is an “ambulance service” model in which the sensors directly notify technicians that maintenance is required. Data will be collected by sensors in all three models, but only in the ambulance service case are the technicians going to see what the sensors are saying. 

With over half of water pumps failing in some countries, if we reduce that failure rate even by a quarter through better maintenance and accountability, these fancy sensors will pay for themselves. 

These and other approaches can start to align intent with impact, and start to ensure that pictures of kids drinking clean water match the reality on the ground. ME 

EVAN THOMAS is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Portland State University, COO of DelAgua Health, and CEO of SweetSense Inc. 

HOW CAN FUNDERS SUPPORT PROGRAMS THAT DEMONSTRATE SUCCESSFUL RESULTS, NOT JUST GOOD INTENTIONS?

 

Reprinted with permission, Mechanical Engineering magazine Vol. 136, No. 12, December 2014. Copyright ASME 2014.