There is a constant conversation in our work about sustainability and ownership. It’s an important conversation because no one wants to invest time, energy and money into something that is going to fail. And as much work as we put into creating community buy-in, we often catch ourselves in a moment of total fail. 

Here is one of those stories.

The San Carlos Water Project was a two year endeavor (about the minimum, given the way we go about things). At about the 12 month mark, we were still in a wrestling match with one of the national authorities from which we needed an official approval to do the project. It was beginning to look like they were just not going to cooperate, and then we realized our blunder. We had a predetermined list of ways in which the community was going to be investing in their project including digging trenches, laying pipe, and paying a fee to get hooked up to the system. And yet for some reason, we had taken it upon our NGO-selves to beat our heads against the wall of ‘government red tape’ to get project approval. After probably 7 or 8 visits to this authority in the capital with no luck, we placed the burden of responsibility on the community itself (which is where it always should have been). They loaded a bus with 12 or 15 citizens, marched into that government building and they didn’t come out until they had their permit. The powers that were could say ‘no’ to a foreign NGO all day long, but how can you tell your own people ‘no’ to a project that would bring clean water to their families.  

We always talk about how important it is to let the community take responsibility for all that they possibly can as we do a project alongside them. This was one of those times that we forgot that. Success is a lousy teacher, but this failure was a critical lesson that we will not soon forget.