How We Can Do Better Than Building A Well

When it comes to poverty reduction, like we're working to do through RoHo, listening is far more important than speaking. Take the classic well example, which I learned in college and has influenced the philosophies of RoHo. A nonprofit established a well for women in a rural community. These women had been walking hours each day to collect drinkable water for themselves and their families. An organization realized how silly this was and dug a well in the town center for everyone to use.

The humanitarians thought they had solved the problem, saving women several strenuous hours a day lugging water. These women could now spend time on other, more lucrative activities. But this nonprofit returned six months later to the same village and found the well broken. The first issue was that no one in the village was trained in how to fix a well if it broke. The second problem was that the well was supposed to last years, not months. The humanitarians learned that several women in the community had purposely broken the well. They were dumbfounded. Why would these women sabotage themselves and now have to walk hours for water? 

The humanitarians had not done a proper assessment of the area and so had not taken into account other issues that would sabotage the well's success. They assumed the lack of water exacerbated poverty, which was not incorrect, but they disregarded high domestic violence rates in the area. With the well fixed, women were spending more time at home and their husbands had more opportunities to become violent towards their wives. Domestic violence rates increased significantly.

These women loved spending hours a day walking to collect water because it was a reprieve from the constant abuse they faced in their homes. They had no real way of getting out of the situation and domestic violence is commonplace in many rural villages in the area so there were no legal repercussions for these men. Until the domestic violence could be addressed, these women would continue to find joy an arduous task like lugging water.

We must continue to understand the context in which we're working, otherwise our good intentions can be more harmful than beneficial. So we must be thoughtful in the ways in which we give, or if we give at all. We forget that another way to be impactful is through our purchases as well. Purchasing from artisans and other groups stimulates a local economy, supports a tradition of skilled work and gives artisans opportunities to decide for themselves what a community needs. Artisans who could be in the well story. 

Helping people help themselves. Sometimes, that can be more powerful than building a well.