Three Cups of Tea Is What’s Wrong with Community Development

The scandal surrounding Greg Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute is fascinating because it’s entirely consistent with the broken practices and culture in community development organizations – not only in the developing world, but in the U.S. too. When you build a school that remains vacant and unused from a lack of adequate community engagement or planning, you’re not serving your targeted communities.

(In addition, it seems that Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute misused funds and focused inordinate amounts of attention on promoting the founder itself. A different problem!)

What’s broken? Both organizations that advertise on TV – Save the Children, Worldvision – and the organizations funded by government agencies like USAID, have grown focused on producing things that are easy to measure, like:

  • Number of schools, playgrounds, hospitals or other infrastructure items constructed
  • Amount of money spent
  • Number of children who would fit in school if it were full (similarly, number of patients who would be served by hospital, etc.)

But those things don’t matter. The things that matter are difficult to measure, like:

  • Building functioning education systems
  • Creating real opportunities for economic development
  • Earning “buy-in” for desired behaviors and practices, whether health, environment or culture-related

A Case Study from Mali

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, in a small village called Sogola. My predecessor there worked with the village to build a women’s health clinic (just a concrete building, really) with the theory that the village would be responsible for staffing it. When I left, three years after the building was complete, there was no health worker staffing the clinic. This reveals the central problem: The government did not have the funds to provide one, and the village did not tax itself to provide the funds. Development organizations are focused on providing measurable infrastructure, but that infrastructure is pretty meaningless without the people to provide services.

My neighbors in Sogola were focused on big, landmark projects, like building new cement buildings, or maybe buying metal fencing to make gardens or chicken coops. These are one-time infusions of cash, and not self-sustaining or change-generating projects.  And who can blame them? Aid agencies have been only too happy to distribute funds for “stuff” – concrete buildings, metal fencing, solar panels, etc. – because distributing “stuff” is easy.

The problem is that all this distribution of “stuff” stands between Malians and their own ability to develop their economies. My village was no better off with an empty health clinic than it was without it. Money can build clinics, but it cannot produce good health care systems. It can provide equipment or materials, but not a society of businesspeople and entrepreneurs. The solution isn’t another building. The solution is investing in people by giving them the means to invest in themselves.

Image Credit: Save the Children on Flickr


6 responses to “Three Cups of Tea Is What’s Wrong with Community Development

  1. So it all comes down to education. Even in prisons the men and women must be taught how to be parents, community citizens, husbands and wives. I remember in Cambodia how frustrated the volunteers were about the poor hygiene in orphanages. Even this must be taught. It is not intrinsic to us.

    • I think it’s access to education, health care and perhaps most importantly, capital. Without access to loans or investment funds for starting and growing businesses, it’s hard to go anywhere. What the developing world needs is venture capital! At the macro scale and at the micro scale. I’ll write another blog post about that next week!

  2. Hello, I stumbled across your blog in the wake of this 3 cups fiasco. I’m a PhD student and I’m set to defend my dissertation which concerns community development practice in Central Asia. I have to say that I was a bit taken aback by your headline and I don’t believe that 3 cups of tea is emblematic of community development in its entirety, nor do I find that kind of panoramic analysis all that useful, obviously projects differ one from another and sometimes they differ day to day.

    Clearly “installing” things, or “distributing” things is not always a very good strategy and can lead to predictably poor results, though I think there is probably a time and place where such things could be done, but its an extremely narrow set of circumstances.

    My point is that we should be able to distinguish between community development that is done well or poorly. It doesn’t help move the conversation forward much if we are simply going to characterize all community development as simply installing stuff or giving stuff away. Such a view doesn’t acknowledge those organizations that are doing good work, that take great pains to make sure that the descriptor “community development or community mobilization” articulates a set of real practices that are worthy of the name.

    Having said all of that, you’re not wrong, simply distributing or installing stuff is not good enough, but neither do I believe that an economic approach is going to be some sort of panacea for community development. Finally, the current state of play regarding reporting requirements is likely not going to switch away from measurable deliverables. However, simply because an organization reports out that sort of data does not de facto mean that they’ve thus reduced their work to only that dimension. Reporting requirements are an integral part of community development and while organizations should take every opportunity they have to responsibly educate and push back their donors, in the mean time they must write reports. Every single development professional I know has faced a reporting requirement that felt like trying to peg a round hole with a square peg… that is the way of things, but indicators and SMART objectives are not just tools for reductionistic reporting but are also tools for thinking through, for measuring the messy reality of implementation with the sterile purpose of a report.

    Lets honor the messy reality of community development done well… we are not masters of this process, we are co-conspirators in the process of cobbling together a common world. lets honor the work that is done well, and condemn the work that is done poorly or not at all.

    • @gatheringthings, I think we agree about this overall. With respect, when I say that 3 cups of tea is “what’s broken with community development”, I’m not arguing that community development isn’t worth doing. I’m saying that they’re perpetuating some broken practices that are widespread in the development sector.

      To be specific: we seem to agree that installing and distributing is only very rarely worth doing – but it is still very broadly done. And I don’t have personal experience with visiting the CAI schools in Afghanistan, but it does appear from the media reports that they are empty and unused, and thus amount to having been installed.

      Certainly education is essential. My point is that organizations – in their laudable struggle to create documentable successes – are conflating “building schools” with “creating education systems” because the former is easy to document and the latter is not. While you understand that difference, I think the average donor doesn’t have the time or access to information to verify that the school that they provided money to build is actually a living, breathing educational environment.

      While I completely understand that organizations have to have something to report to donors, the development mechanisms currently in play – including building schools, etc. – isn’t working. Africa, for example, is poorer now than it was 40 years ago when the west started funding development campaigns. We have to find a better way. I don’t know what that better way is, but I’m very glad smart, good people like you are trying to find it.

      Thanks for taking the time to read, comment, and work on development issues. I welcome the continued discussion!

      – Kelly

  3. Kelly, I’m enjoying reading your blog–thanks for putting the time into it. You said, “What’s broken? Both organizations that advertise on TV – Save the Children, Worldvision – and the organizations funded by government agencies like USAID, have grown focused on producing things that are easy to measure…”

    I would add that donors–individuals, foundations, government, et al–share some (if not most) responsibility in creating the cult of metrics and distracting aid organizations from more important results. Grants are usually tied to rather heavy reporting requirements that focus on the type of things you mention above. Individual donors are trained to respond to the latest round of numbers like the examples you cite. If you think of the non-profit sector as a rational capital market, then you have to think of the consumer-donor as the invisible hand, so to speak. If there is a system of organizations supplying ineffective aid work, it’s because that’s the system donors/foundations/government have demanded.

    Just thinking out loud with you here. Are you aware of any organizations that serve non-profits by consulting with them about designing effective/meaningful metrics?

    • Andrew, I completely agree that donors (myself included!) have to bear responsibility. And your point about the “invisible hand” is well taken. Off the top of my head, I don’t know of orgs working on better metrics systems. But there are some interesting examples of different models. For example, the Acumen Fund (I did a post about them – funds businesses whose services or products connect with the poor on an equity or debt investment model. Acumen then measures the impact of their loans/investments by looking at the customers of their investment businesses.

      If making an investment in a business doesn’t work, I think it really helps to ask the clients of the development project to pay a substantial amount of money (in their scale) for the project – not necessarily because you need the funding itself, but because this is the only way you’ll know that the project is the highest priority for the community. (Note that in-kind labor isn’t really enough in this scenario; you kind of need the cash or physical goods that cost money to reflect the community’s commitment.) That’s just an idea – I don’t have great examples or research to back that particular idea.

      I’ll do some more reading and research on the metrics point and see if I can pull together a post in future.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and to comment. I appreciate the conversation very much.


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