A Poorly Kept Secret about Another Broken Well

Posted on Posted in community development, poverty, STM, sustainability

Wells have been installed all over the world by organizations that collected donation money from people just like you. A lot of pictures are sent back home of the big celebration, unveiling of the plaque and congratulatory speeches. This is usually the last we hear of the well.

Job Well Done!

Another Broken Well

The problem is that the pumps were broken by some local kid and haven’t worked in years.

The first time I saw this kind of thing (and it is not that uncommon) I thought, what is wrong with these people? They have to walk for kilometres for water, often to polluted streams, and this pump is just sitting there at their doorstep – Why don’t they fix it?


Don’t they care?

If someone gives you a gift shouldn’t you keep it up?

That is a fairly obvious isn’t it? Is this some sort of moral deficiency or “cultural” issue … I tried to come up with all kinds of explanations. Most of them were convoluted and sort of racist, but over time I think I am starting to understand why.

The answer is the people did not realize the pump was theirs

In too many cases, no one knew who actually owned the pump. Sure it was given to ‘the community‘ but it was never clarified who that actually was. It is like the road in front of your house, it is “yours” But you don’t fill the potholes.

When it is given to everyone, it is given to no one.


No one owns the well.

Everyone else assumed someone else owned it. When the outsiders came in with the water in the first case it is usually enormously appreciated, but because no one actually owned the pumps, and no one collected money for maintenance, it meant that no one was in charge.

The pump is most commonly seen as a broken promise and a failed responsibility of the donating agency

Whenever I saw a broken well, I started to ask a simple question, “Whose well is this?” I had hoped to hear people tell me that this is “my well”. Instead I heard over and over that “this is the well of [insert name of your favourite development agency here]”.


Changing ownership

Why does the community think the well belongs to an outsider? Probably because an outsider brought it in and even though they most certainly told the local people it was theirs, words don’t mean as much as action.

And their actions clearly showed that this well was not theirs. At no point was the well actually given to anyone with an enforceable interest in maintaining the well.


 No thanks!

Consider if you were suddenly told by a friend, colleague or pastor that the work that they have done for the past year is now yours. And – “oh yeah, by the way, the money run out in 6 months so you need to make sure that you find a way to keep it going …” How would you feel?

You may feel a lot like many recipients around the world feel when they receive one of our projects. Sure, I like this project, but I like it as a user, a recipient, not an owner. Why are you trying to pass this time-consuming and expensive responsibility on to me?

  • When wells are given to a community and not to an owner (person or team)- no one owns the well.
  • If you form vague requests for maintenance schedules but avoid the plans for a person to make an income from his work – no one owns the well.

When there is no clear system in place, everyone expects that the company who brought the water will manage their investment, collect fees and repair the breakdowns.


If you don’t want another broken well

For a project to last in a community, the community must own it at all times. From long before the planning phase, to long after you are gone. How do you make sure of real ownership? Simple.

Don’t do the kinds of things that owners do.

If you dream it, plan for it, pay for it, manage it and sell it to the community … guess who the owner is? You, of course. Do something different instead, find out the dreams, plans, resources, management and promotion of the community and join what they are doing.

Have you ever been frustrated by a big waste of money?

Mark Crocker

(Visited 319 time, 1 visit today)

4 thoughts on “A Poorly Kept Secret about Another Broken Well

  1. Sometimes the more basic wells are the best option for this exact reason. The well that uses a bucket and rope is harder to use…but needs no maintenance. Technology is not always the solution…the old ways are sometimes better.

  2. Another great point Mark! Thanks for all you do! Also making us aware of the fact that sometimes we think we are helping but we are only hurting. Thanks for reminding us it is about coming a long side and finding out what people want and not we think they need!

Tell us what you think!