CardStories: Bicycle-powered water pumps pedaled by malnourished 8-year-olds

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This card idea was inspired by Stop Trying to Save the World: Big ideas are destroying international development. As JadedAid cards attest, snark and dark humor are two ways many of us cope, especially when it comes to that great new idea from a donor or a top leader who just went to that high-level “innovation” meeting.

The thing is, it’s rarely the idea that’s the problem. The problem is the human tendency to fixate on the idea as the only solution, the solution that will solve all the problems, if it is done just so like was done in India/Uganda/Vietnam, but since we don’t have infinite funds, well, guess we’ll need to cut this other project…

That isn’t to say the other project is any “better” (good luck with defining “better”) but there isn’t a serious consideration of whether this idea would “work” in a different context. We don’t have a good way of sorting through this question and so we end up with massively executed projects like above in totally inappropriate contexts. It’s easier to talk about wasted funds, but the true accounting is on a very personal level: the folks who you’re trying to help are missing opportunities, and wasting their very limited time and energy by gambling on a big, untested idea. That’s unethical.

We – and that we is not just development staff, but funders, community members (so often left out of these discussions), and other stakeholders – need to more mindfully explore solutions that come up during scale-up projects. We should look at these ideas using different lenses (ethical, sustainability, technical, common sense). We also need to be aware of how the shine of an idea can distract from its substance (see: all sorts of ICT4D projects point vs. counterpointhealth services user fees). Ideas/innovation are a means, not the ends. As the article says, “The repeated ‘success, scale, fail’ experience of the last 20 years of development practice suggests something super boring: Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied.”

Donors, governments, and implementing agencies should take that observation to heart, and remember George Box’s remark that “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”.

CB has worked in public health in different areas of Asia for about six years. Most of her work has been with local organizations located outside of capital cities.

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