Near-Term Success, Long-Term Failure

by Owen Scott, African Program Staff, Engineers Without Borders Canada

  • Project: Survey of rural water infrastructure
  • Location: Machinga, Malawi
  • Sector: Business Development, Education and Youth
  • Professional Designation: NGO



Six months into my placement I started working part-time with Machinga district, following up on work that several of my colleagues had started there. They had been assisting the district with conducting a survey of rural water infrastructure. The purpose of the survey was to help identify areas of high and low service, in order to improve planning for new infrastructure, and identify non-functional infrastructure so it could be repaired.

We were proposing a new approach to updating rural water supply data, using an existing network of health department extension workers embedded in rural areas. We were very optimistic that the survey updates could be managed sustainably by the district without on-going external support. Following the initial survey, I was responsible for helping the district conduct quarterly updates.

The district had been given substantial funding from one of our NGO partners to do an initial survey and was not excited about the idea of doing an update with their own limited operational budget. When we began discussing an information update, they immediately requested that I negotiate additional funding from our NGO partner.

At this point, I should have stepped back and assessed what really would have been necessary for sustainability. The funding from the NGO partner would not be available forever and eventually funding would have to be provided from the district budget. I should have had this discussion with the district, and determined what, if anything, would motivate them to take ownership over the data collection process, and fund it themselves.

Instead I defined success as a “successful update of the survey”, and prioritized the one-off activity over the long-term outcome of sustainability. In order to sustain the district’s involvement with the system, I negotiated for our NGO partner to release a small amount of funding for them, less than $200, which they eventually did – leading directly to a successful update of the survey.

It was time for another round of data collection three months later,  however, this time no NGO funding was available. My colleagues at the district were not happy when I told them this yet, despite their reservations, they agreed to try to fund data collection on their own. A half-hearted attempt at data collection emerged, with a less than 50% complete return. Three months later, when it came time for another update, they chose not to do data collection at all. The water infrastructure monitoring system in Machinga had, in effect, been proven unsustainable.


Upon reflection, I can think of two major failures from this story:

  1. Prioritizing tangible activities as outcomes. Success is hard to find sometimes in development work and can have a serious effect on how we think about it. For me, success quickly became about having the district staff collect data –it was tangible, concrete, and simple. Success wasn’t about the district office valuing the program or about behavior change. This all but guaranteed that my own priorities and the actual priorities of the district would eventually become misaligned
  2. Using distorting financial incentives to achieve an outcome. This is a classic pitfall in development, and one that I walked right into. Once I had an outcome in mind – data collection – it became easy to organize the NGO funding needed to make it happen. But using financial means to achieve my outcome (almost bribery in a way) quickly eroded the foundation of actual relevance that would be necessary for long-term sustainability of our program.

Since the experience in Machinga, I’ve been taking an almost opposite approach. These days, when we work with districts, we bring no external funding, even for the initial surveys. If districts want to work with us to help improve their planning and information management, they are responsible for first funding a full round of data collection without any assistance from us or our NGO partner. This serves as almost a priori proof that the work we’re doing together is: (a) actually relevant to the district (or else why would they fund it?), (b) actually financially sustainable. This has led to district governments being much more invested in the work we’re doing together, and is sowing the seeds for sustainability much better than our old approach.


Select three phrases that describe this failure.

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Got something to say? Feel free, I want to hear from you! Leave a Comment

  1. Brett says:

    This is a helpful, concise case study. Identifying and responding to felt needs is easier said than done.

  2. Geneviève says:

    Thanks for the post, it is very relevant!
    Involving locals doesn’t only mean to get them work with you , but also to let them take the decisions on what should be done, and how should they contribute financially. Brilliant case study!

  3. Very open reporting on the project with useful lessons.

  4. Great story, indeed you fell into the NGO funding trap, like most of us do in the beginning!

    Also in development work, it’s all about money and funding, as long you pay, you stay, and you have a say, if your funding has gone, you better be gone, because otherwise they will take you on….

    Sustainability is all about getting locals to pay for what they need. But having said that, there is more to it. If you oblige them to pay more than they can (or will) afford, there is no sustainable process, or maybe they didn’t needed that so much in the first place?

    For instance, with water pumps, you have to be sure to install a pump that is not expensive to maintain. That can be a cheap pump that can easily be repaired with local means, but that can only serve a limited number of people, or a better one (i.e. a BluePump) that last a lifetime and can serve up to 1.000 people, and only needs once every 3 to 5 year a small service from a District Pump Mechanic.

    Unfortunately, most NGOs often go for the cheap option, but indeed, it remains to be seen if that come very practical and really solves a problem if you have to provide clean water for many people.

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