Victoria Solbert

international sustainable development professional

Context, Rights, and Experts

By vicsolbert | April 16, 2014 | 0 Comment

Images of a selection of failed and defunct water projects in India. Courtesy Susan Amrose, UC Berkeley.

It was a standing room only crowd that pushed out the doorways last Friday afternoon to hear development economist Bill Easterly present on his new book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley.

Prof. Easterly explained his primary concern is the technocratic approach often taken in development. This approach views a simple lack of technology or expertise as the primary cause of poverty. What this viewpoint allows experts to ignore however is the importance of human rights to the poor. Technocrats, Easterly argues, will ignore the political context in order to get their technological fix implemented, which has resulted in the support of autocratic regimes and suppression of democracy and the rights of the poor.

What Easterly calls for is the recognition that “the rights of the poor are good in and of themselves,” and a change in the conversation from technocratic solutions to a focus on political reform. When pressed by the audience for more explicit guidance for development work however, Easterly responded “aid is a very small player over all.” He did not want to talk about a road map for aid, but rather to focus on a bigger conversation about rights and reform. While I understand Easterly’s frustration with always being asked, “what should we do about aid,” as his audience was a crowd of eager would-be development practitioners, engineers, and academics, surely there were some specific lessons which could be applied from his work?

To explore this issue, let us narrow our perspective from international diplomacy to the problem of water in India. Millions of people in India currently lack access to an adequate supply of safe drinking water, resulting in over 21% of transmissible diseases in the country caused by unsafe water.[i] While the fight for democracy is imperative, the potential for technology to combat such problems is still great. Thousands of water projects have been implemented across India, large scale to small scale, public, private and non-profit solutions. Yet an un-countable number of these projects have failed.

These projects failed for a diversity of reasons. Some installed improperly sited wells that soon ran dry. Many used technologies that were not robust, being too difficult, expensive, or time consuming to maintain, and lack of support soon left them unable to function. Others were simply too expensive, inconvenient, or undesirable for target beneficiaries to use. These are all perfect examples of technocratic solutions. While they may not have supported autocratic rule, they still failed to properly contextualize the solution to the people and environment in which they were implemented. Some projects were simply rushed so sufficient care was not taken to site or test the solution before installation. Others did not properly consult either with local governments or intended users. They failed not only to realize the extent of location specific difficulties involved in keeping the technology operational, but also did not achieve any local buy-in which could have made communities more invested in the project’s success.

In contrast, take the example of UV Waterworks. UV Waterworks was developed by a team of researchers led by Ashok Gadgil at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which modified existing UV purification technology to make it robust to the developing world context.[ii] Extensive work went into the design and rigorous field-testing of the technology to ensure it was affordable, energy efficient, easy to use, easy to maintain, and met WHO water safety requirements. Just as much work went into the distribution model. The technology is exclusively licensed to the company Water Health International, which has implemented a model of WaterHealth Centers in communities across India. This model is predicated on robust public-private partnerships with local governments, who sanction the land, water, and electricity connection for Centers. WHI partners with Indian banks to secure long-term loans which enable the local village council, the Panchayat, to purchase the center by providing over 50% of the upfront capital expenditure. Centers are transferred fully to the community through the Panchayat once bank loans are repaid. The sale of water from these Centers, around US$ 0.002 per liter in 2007, is enough to pay off bank loans in 8-10 years, and cover all operation, maintenance, and salary costs. Centers require 2-3 full time employees, which are all trained people from the local community. Marketing and education is a key aspect of the venture, and WHI partners with local NGOs for outreach and education efforts in public health and hygiene.

As of 2012 WHI has established over 500 centers, and estimates that they supply clean water to over 5 million customers.[iii] The model has proven far more robust and effective than a majority of other clean water programs.  The UV Waterworks technology was effective because the researchers who developed it realized their strength was in the technology, not in the implementation. They partnered with WHI to ensure the necessary capacity for proper deployment. Similarly WHI vetted and built partnerships with local organizations that could compliment its own strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, these partnerships empowered and gave ownership to the communities in which the Centers were built.

The danger of a technocratic approach is not just that it can ignore the political context, but also the social, cultural, economic, environmental, and logistical contexts. This does not mean there aren’t effective technological solutions. Time and effort needs to be taken to ensure technologies are appropriately adapted to the needs and desires of the communities they serve. Experts need to recognize where their expertise ends, and listen to the rights and insights of those they wish to help. This is an idea that can be implemented not just at the level of national governments as Bill Easterly explains, but individual projects in single communities. Technology can be great, but it’s all about the context.


Images of a selection of failed and defunct water projects in India. Courtesy Susan Amrose, UC Berkeley.

Images of a selection of failed and defunct water projects in India. Courtesy Susan Amrose, UC Berkeley.

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