When we work to change systems for the better, we look for points of highest leverage, points where one “small” change, if made well, affects everything. Change made well is the key… This includes having an understanding of the environment and its requirements – not just for change in and of itself but, rather, for change to be beneficial and sustainable over time.
Sometimes the best of intentions may not have the best results. Processes that work on soil may not work on sand. We know this from the new testament biblical story about building a house on sand or on rock (Matthew 7 and Luke 6). Nonetheless, here are two actual stories of international development that did not account for the attributes of the place they were “developing.”
Story 1: We covered a fifty-mile stretch of road, round trip, from the capital, Mogadishu, to refugee camps in the south of Somalia about once a week. The road had once been a dirt track; then, in the interest of development, it was paved. On our first trip south, we noticed several drivers, obviously familiar with the route, leaving the paved road periodically and driving in the ditch for mile after mile – where they joined in with herds of hundreds of camels being moved south. Hussein, who was driving, stayed on the pavement but soon found driving almost impossible because of potholes too big to drive around or too deep to drive through. Besides, the vehicles in the ditch were making much better time than we were. We joined them and the camels.
You see, given the sandy desert foundation under the pavement and the lack of resources for ongoing maintenance, what had been intended as an improvement – a modern paved road – had become an obstacle. Thus, the drivers had built themselves a “new” road. It was a dirt track just like the original one, except hat it was now twenty-five feet farther east for driving north and twenty-five feet farther west for driving south.
Story 2: Behind my house in Mogadishu there was a water tower. Young boys with donkey carts lined up day after day to fill their oil drums with water. They supplied the entire section of the city around me. One night I awoke to an enormous crashing sound. The water tower had fallen over. It had been built on sand. For several days the boys had no access to water. My section of the city had no access to water. Eventually the well was made usable again by lowering a bucket with a rope attached. The water tower was never rebuilt while I was there but the boys’ water businesses boomed again.