Simple is sustainable

July 20, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nyanguba Kyanakyere, 60, built this improved cookstove using just clay, sand, water and the skills he learned from Mercy Corps. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Looking at the simple and inexpensive — yet powerful — ways to help on our Home page, I’m reminded how needlessly complicated humanitarian assistance can become.

One of my first experiences overseas forever changed the way I look at international development. I was 23 years old, fresh out of college and in my first week of Peace Corps service in the village of Amegnran, Togo. As I was trying to establish my work as an agroforester in the zone I’d been assigned, I kept hearing the same thing from a lot of people:

“You should go over to the village of Agomé Glozou. They have a big project going on there, but they need some help.”

Near the end of that first week, I got on my bike and headed 12 miles east from Amegnran toward the Mono River, Togo’s border with Benin. Upon reaching Agomé Glozou — a village famous for its elaborate pottery and herds of river-dwelling hippopotami — I was approached by a group of men that seemed as though they’d been expecting me. “Have you come to look at the project?” they asked with great anticipation.

I told them I had, and we all started walking along red clay paths lined with oil and coconut palm trees. We soon came to an earthen dike that separated the Mono River from acres of rice paddy. And then I saw the problem.

In the middle of the dike sat a huge set of metal doors — it was a dam constructed years ago to flood the rice paddy with river water. It was impressive; I immediately wondered how it had been built, and by whom.

“It doesn’t work any more,” one of the villagers told me. “So we carry water from the river by hand, just like we did before the dam was built. Can you fix it?”

I proceeded to ask some questions about the dam. They explained that, at some point, the machinery had stopped working, and there was no way to operate the floodgates by hand. The organization that had built the dam hadn’t trained anyone to maintain the machinery. Whoever had built it hadn’t even left contact information in case something went wrong. And, honestly, no one in the village even remembered the name of the organization that had built the dam.

“But can you fix it?”

I told them I was just a Peace Corps Volunteer and new to the area, but I’d ask around and see what I could do. Over my two years of service in Togo, I wrote dozens of letters to various government humanitarian agencies and large institutional donors, trying to discover who’d built the dam and, more importantly, get assistance for the people of Agomé Glozou. I got back a few letters, every one of which expressed no knowledge of the project.

I ended up working in Agomé Glozou anyway, helping the community establish tree nurseries and nurturing the growth of a local women’s chamber of commerce. I never worried whether either of those projects would break down.

That’s the thing I learned about international development: it doesn’t have to be complicated to work. In fact, in most cases, it probably shouldn’t be.

And that takes me back to those ways to help I mentioned earlier. An investment in education — the few dollars it takes to send a child to school — lasts a lifetime. It only takes clay, sand, water and a little bit of training to build an improved cookstove that fights climate change and helps save womens’ lives. Just $17 worth of seeds is enough for a Ugandan family to establish a farm that will put food on the table and, hopefully, sustain a living for years to come.

Sometimes, it doesn’t even take material things like books or seeds to effect change: dialogue is one of the most useful tools in international development.

The landscape of international development is too littered with broken-down multimillion-dollar monuments to over-complicated projects. So we start small instead. Powerful, lasting change doesn’t have to break the bank.