Stop building schools; stop building water wells; stop building toilets.


Sep 7, 2016

Old pit latrines in Libuyu, Zambia. | Flickr: P. Felerelsen

A majority of people in poor countries do not have access to some of the most basic necessities of life such as affordable education, safe water and decent sanitation. Consider the case of water and sanitation. According to the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) site, 780 million people do not have access to safe water; more than 2.5 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation; and almost one million children under the age of five die annually due to diarrhea, a very preventable sickness. Understandably, the natural response to this perpetual calamity then is to provide these resources to people. Where there are no schools, we must provide schools; where there are no toilets, we must build toilets; where there are no clinics, we should fund clinics; and where there is no water, a water well is the way to go. But these solutions are not solving the fundamental problem. Let us consider them one by one.

On the issue of schools, there is a big push to achieve 100 percent primary and secondary education. In fact the fourth United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal is to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Initiatives like these lead governments, development agencies, and NGOs to build schools and increase attendance. But as Harvard Kennedy School professor, Lant Pritchett, notes in his powerful book, The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning, children in many poor countries go to school but don’t learn. In India, for instance, about half of the fifth grade students surveyed could not read a simple story and only slightly more than half could do subtraction. And results over several years got worse, not better. In Tanzania, over 65 percent of students who sat for the 2012 examination for secondary school failed. While there is data which highlights the benefits of education in poor countries, clearly the manner in which investments in education are made—building schools, staffing with teachers, and increasing attendance—is not having the sort of transformative impact education proponents espouse.

The first time I visited a community where people did not have access to water nearby, it occurred to me that simply building a water well would solve the community’s water problems. So, I rallied friends together, raised $10,000 and we built a well for the community. We later built four other wells, of which only one is functioning properly today. Today, I know that my response of building a well, and the well’s response of breaking down after several months, is not an anomaly in the international development industry. The London based International Institute for the Environment and Development (IIED) published a 2009 report which noted that more than $360 million worth of water well projects in Africa are no longer functioning. Regrettably, the situation is not much different for toilets.

On the issue of toilets, let us consider India, a country in which more than half of households lack toilets and open defecation in many regions is the norm. This has deleterious effects on society as diarrhea kills millions of children annually. The Indian government, in response to this problem, is on a mission to build 60 million toilets by 2019. By mid 2015, the government had built more than 10 million toilets for its people. But the government is learning a hard lesson; building a toilet is one thing, getting people to use it is quite another. In a Washington Post article, the minister for rural development is quoted as saying, “For long, we assumed that if the toilets are built, people will automatically use it. But we have to diligently monitor the use over a period of time and reward them with cash incentives to the village councils at every stage. Only then will it become a daily habit.” And so, not only does the government have to build toilets, but now it must pay people to use it. Perhaps the push to build toilets is not the right move.

So what should we do?

Considering the billions of people who do not have access to these basic needs, the question then becomes, what can be done to solve some of these severe issues? First, hard as it may be, we should resist the natural urge to fix the problem by providing the “right solution.” In the case of education, we must resist providing conventional schools; in the case of sanitation, we must resist providing toilets; and in the case of water, we must resist providing water wells. While our urges are noble and our intentions typically pure, in the long-term, our solutions do little to actually improve the lives of many people living in extreme poverty.

Second, we should remember that every country was, at one point, poor, at least by today’s standards. The question we should then ask is, “How did prosperous countries get rich? Did they get significant amounts of money which were directed at education, toilet, and water projects?” The answer, of course, is no—many of the rich countries today innovated their way out of poverty and created jobs for their citizens. If countries pursue a development strategy anchored in market-creating innovations targeted at nonconsumption, jobs will follow shortly, and suddenly prosperity will not be so elusive.

Third, we should copy, and copy shamelessly, models that have worked. Consider Taiwan after World War II. The country was poorer than many African countries with a per capita income of around $100. But it invested in market-creating innovations targeted at farming, food processing, and light manufacturing. Soon after, entrepreneurs in the country began exporting and then reinvesting funds to improve education and build infrastructure. Ultimately, the country escaped poverty, not by investing in subpar schools or temporary water projects, but by investing in innovation.

Schools may help temporarily; providing toilets may seem like the right thing to do; and there are few feelings more gratifying than providing water to a community in need (trust me, I have felt it many times). But these solutions are, at best, correlated with prosperity and not causal. It is only through investing in market-creating innovations that provide jobs for people that many will be able to pave a way out of poverty for themselves. I never met a person with a decent job who still drank unsafe water.

Efosa Ojomo is a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Efosa’s work focuses on using disruptive innovation theory to fundamentally change the discourse in the global development community, thus enabling nations to engender their own path to long-term growth and prosperity.

  • Ade Atobatele

    Appropriately said!

    My father used to say that one should never believe that one had a monopoly on a good idea.

    I now see that we are not only singing from the same hymn book, we are singing in tune!

    • Efosa Ojomo

      Thank you for the feedback. Much appreciated.

    • Theo

      Hello, thanks for your interesting article. Having volunteered last summer for 8 weeks in Nicaragua, it spoke some truth. However there’s a broken hyperlink in the article : the “market-creating innovations” link sends to a “page not found”. I’m sure it refers to a great article so I was disappointed when it didn’t show up ! 🙂

  • Allen Zito

    Great piece mixed with constructive innovations.Thank you sir for sharing

    • Efosa Ojomo

      Thanks a lot for the feedback. And thanks for reading.

  • Florence (Flo) Okoli

    ….a really powerful piece! Your article is indeed controversial because it is counterintuitive! However, it is the truth….and nothing but the truth! Disruptive, innovative thinking at its best!

    …thank you for awakening our brains from the lazy thinking that accompanies accepting the norm and ‘popular opinion’ as the truth, without bothering to scrutinize such norms and generally accepted ways of thinking…

    ….indeed, never met a person with a decent job who still drinks unsafe water, practices open defecation, and argues against education/learning….

    …hopefully your article (which needs to be disseminated widely to people and governments in developing nations, as well as development agencies, by the way!) will force us past the sense of chronic unease we all feel nowadays to the path of actually doing something about it in a sustainable way….rather than taking the path of least resistant and giving in to the lure of the expedient….

    ….an important call to action….towards investing in and enabling market-creating innovations, even if we have to copy shamelessly…. in doing this, we will not be ASHAMED!

    Well done, Efosa!!!

    • Efosa Ojomo

      Thanks a lot for your comments and feedback. They are very much appreciated.

  • Adeyemo Ademola

    Excellent post and even more excellent observations. I have always argued that many times people who mean well never look deeply at the problems they are trying to solve to grasp the root causes and so most times they end up plucking at the leaves and wasting valuable time and resources whilst the problems linger on and in some cases even get worse as these ineffective solutions create their own set of problems. My concern however is; how do we get this ‘correct thinking’ to relevant parties who are close enough or situated on such sites? Then I immediately ask myself how can I help this situation in my immediate surroundings? Food for thought and decision making. Great post.

    • Efosa Ojomo

      Thanks for the feedback. You ask excellent questions that I will be wrestling with in coming months.

    • Ade Atobatele

      We don’t wait for government. We build proof of concepts ourselves.

  • Jinny Uppal

    I just spent the summer volunteering overseas with a group of artisans that created an online marketplace to sell their craft directly to consumers worldwide. With the revenue earned (most of what customer pays goes to artisans since there are no 3rd party resellers to share the pie), some of the artisans went on to build community solutions such as a free pre-school, soil erosion prevention, trash management. I have come to believe that not all solutions have to come from an ‘expert’. Self empowered communities are likely to come up with better ideas and prioritize problems to solve than any well meaning expert from a ‘developed’ country. They are also likely to manage these solutions over time because they have a sense of ‘ownership’ which I think they wouldn’t for a hand-me-down solution.

    • Efosa Ojomo

      Thanks a lot for the feedback. It is much appreciated. And your thinking is spot on. Cheers.

  • This piece got me thinking and I think African leaders should consider some implementation of some suggestions

    • Efosa Ojomo

      Thanks for the feedback and comments. Much appreciated.

  • Sunday Negedu

    Very powerful and “disruptive” of established thinking! We just can’t keep doing same thing over. Last week I thought of the highly publicized recession of Nigeria, and how everywhere you turn, you hear remarks like: “this is not the change we wanted from the current government”, “things are indeed hard and so on…”. We seem to focus on the crises, not with the intent of solving but to lay blames.
    This week, I wondered: “but this is not the first incidence of recession from a global outlook”. So, what did the nations that later survived it do? And truly, we must copy shamelessly.
    Powerfully instructive! We need this revolution of our approach to challenges. How beautiful is this piece; we are not just presented with new ways out of poverty but also with practical examples of their work-ability. We are constantly surrounded by innovations from our Western friends, but we have the resources and a large market for market-creating innovations.
    As your student in this line of economic revolution, ever since I started reading your well-research articles, I had become vigorously aware of exploiting the strengths of innovation in my pursuit in cancer research.
    So the cry to the wealthy, our NGOs, and government is to support the poor through market-creating innovations. The norm can get heavily disrupted. In my interactions with students, not many like the idea of going to school. But we have been told for so many years that:”education knocks out poverty”. There should be structures that effectively supports those who cannot read instead of wasting resources in increasing attendance. The issue require deep thinking and a change in culture. I still remember one of your post that emphasized skills and not paper-sought schooling. Our solutions can lead to more problems. Let’s get the locals to appreciate their environment and the potential in the resources around them so as to discourage them from untamed chase after white-jobs. Let our rural communities be shown the new thinking: market-creating innovation, let our schools emphasis and train our students in this thought to snap off the chains of poverty.
    I very much appreciate this post and how timely for emerging economies like ours.

    • Efosa Ojomo

      Thank you for your insightful comments. We certainly appreciate your feedback.

  • Dare E. Oladipupo

    I must confess that – this is one of the most brilliant write up i have seen this year on innovative thinking. Thanks a lot for this exposure.

    We should not only blame the government, because i think we all are guilty of what Efosa called the “natural urge to fix the problem by providing the right solution”

    Many NGOs, cooperate organizations and even individuals follow this same pattern of thinking. Use see them building schools, toilets, etc.. in the name of CSR or PSR (Personal Social Responsibility) in order to fix problems.

    As individuals, I think we should also start to think of innovative ways of fixing problems and resist this so called natural urge.

    • Efosa Ojomo

      Thank you very much for your feedback, Dare. Much appreciated. Hopefully, we can get this to the right folks to change the way we think about some of our most pressing problems.

  • Taiwo Akinyemi

    I do think this would spread well maybe not so soon but eventually will. However, I do feel guilty not to follow the “natural urge” and guilty again in show of its shallowness. this idea is “disruptive” and would serve me an awareness to move pass the urge and create or follow tested models.


    • Efosa Ojomo

      Thanks a lot for your comments. We hope this research makes an impact in the development industry. Cheers.

  • Sung Yun Lee

    I’m shocked that a resource as valuable as a water well would fall into disrepair! Especially if is in an area where you have to walk 2, 5, 10 miles just to get water.

    What about using entrepreneurship to keep the resource working? Like charging 5 cents (or barter system) to use the well, with people being employed to collect the money, and then when there is a breakdown in the technology, there are people trained to fix it AND there is money in the community “pool” to keep it going.

    I say, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Taiwan truly is a success model, even in the US, they are THE MOST successful people of color groups in terms of getting college educated. Yes, they had to start somewhere. African countries also have to start somewhere, but it just may look a little different. I would be happy to pray and brainstorm what God has in mind for these impoverished communities.

    I have heard of people in Tanzania/Kenya region simply PRAYING FOR RAIN and God blessed them with rain, ushering in tremendous prosperity with crops. Sometimes the education/health/technology/faith all goes hand in hand. But it IS important, as you said, to look at what works and what does not.

    I, for one, am excited to do God’s work in India and Africa and see what social entrepreneurship the body of Christ has to offer!!!

    “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” ~ 1 Corinthians 3:6-12

  • Abisai Mugata

    I wish I could agree but no. I magine if you left a person who is drowning to find his or her way out of water? The causes of poverty have so much to do with the sources of the wealth in the world today. Charity is one way of addressing historical injustices. The well do have a duty to uplift those who are not well enough.

  • Asuzu Ronald

    How do we get African policy makers (Nigeria especially) to see this beautiful write up?

  • Giveusabreak

    Yes but no! I like that your piece challenges the traditional copy and paste solutions to problems in Africa. I agree we need market-creating innovations across the region but at the same time we need civil society to attempt to address the gaps now. We need to improve the technology of digging wells but at the same time train the communities to manage and maintain wells.
    What I find interesting in international development is the blame game and disqualifications that seems to mostly advance intellectual debate at the expense of those in need and honest practitioners. I think both sides of the aisle need to constantly improve and innovate.
    So, “Build Schools, Dig Wells, Build Latrines….but do them well”