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
    Efosa Ojomo

    Efosa Ojomo is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and co-author of The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty. Efosa researches, writes, and speaks about ways in which innovation can transform organizations and create inclusive prosperity for many in emerging markets.