White Elephant in Development

One of the things plaguing development, especially local development is the proliferation of ‘white elephant projects’. ‘White elephant projects’ are ones that are constructed with the best intentions and for the simplest reasons (bathrooms or wells for instance), but are not utilized by the community after the project is completed. Obviously, this is a waste of resources for human capital, financial capital, and time.
Largely, white elephant projects come about when not enough research is done in the community beforehand. Research and conversations and the community needs, customs, behaviors, and beliefs. I am often reminded of a story passed onto me from a Wooster grad about a white elephant project in Africa. An NGO saw that women in the community had to walk an hour to the river to get water, and then carry it back. Therefore, it only made sense to build a well close by as to cut down on the transportation time. Well, the NGO successfully built the well but it was never used. The women continued their hour walk down to the river with their buckets and ignored the well. When asking why the women did not use the well and continued with what seemed a slightly absurd practice, the women commented that collecting water was a social event. The time spent collecting water was time spent outside the house and time with their neighbors and friends. While collecting water, the women would chat, pass gossip and news, and just socialize. By using the well, an important part of the women’s social life was being reduced. Perhaps if the NGO took this into account, they may have planned differently or included a project or initiative to make up for the lost social gains of water collecting.
One of the things that Peace Corps in Peru presses is a behavioral evaluation model, which seeks to examine why people do certain practices (not use condoms, use campo abierto) and then to examine how these practices can be changed. This is part of the reason why the first three months at site, we actually don’t do any projects. Instead, we do community diagnostic work such as interviews, community mapping, FREESOP, and seasonal calendars to better understand how the community works. These create conversations between the volunteer and the community to exchange information about the community but also about the volunteer and allow both to get comfortable with each other. The idea is, with community information and community input, the volunteer and the community can formulate plans and projects that the community sees as necessary and wants.


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