Two sentences offered to me in 1987 through the heat and blowing sands of Northern Kenya still guide me today. I was working on a water project in the Chalbi Desert, and girls and moms, they’re loading up their camels with water, and they’re about to head home.
I look across the desert, and I don’t even know where home is. They’re getting kind of agitated, they’re tired of talking to me, and they’re starting to move on because they have a long journey ahead, and they’re going to do it again, and again, and again, and again. So I sit there, and I turn to the program manager of this initiative, and I say, “Dilly, what am I going to make of all of this?” and his answer surprised me. He said, “Ned, always be willing to look back and ask hard questions about the work that you’ve done because you’re intervening in peoples’ lives and that carries enormous responsibility.” 27 years later, and I’m still working in water and sanitation.
But when people ask me, “What do you do?” I always say, “I monitor.” Monitoring is essential for international development. You set a big goal, an audacious goal, you imagine what the end looks like, and then try to figure out what are the markers along the way that will tell us, “Are we getting there?” Then you track those, you track those tirelessly, fearlessly, so you can see what you’re doing well, and adjust and address the inevitable problems that will emerge.
Now, we spend trillions of dollars every year in aid and philanthropy, trying to solve big problems around the world. But few actually look back and see if it is even working. We’re constantly rushing to the next village, to the next church, to the next school. We’ve got so much to do, but no one pauses and says, like Dilly, “Wait a minute, is this even working?” This is the challenge. We live in a philanthropic world, where we’ve confused inputs with outcomes. We’re confusing overhead with results. I am truly inspired by people who decide to donate mosquito nets to families in Zanzibar, but the question is has malaria gone down? If not, what do you need to do to change that to get malaria down? I love that you can donate a well to a community in Zambia, but the question is, is water still flowing five years later? A friend of mine just helped a woman in India get a loan, and she paid it back. That’s great. Is she out of poverty? Those are the real questions.
The organizations that go on that journey towards those outcomes are the ones that are truly changing the world. Rotarians and others decided years ago to do something outrageous: they were going to eradicate polio from the globe. People scoffed, they said, “This isn’t possible.” But they worked, they kept their eyes on that goal, they didn’t count how many drops they were putting in kids’ mouths. They were looking at “is polio truly eradicated from this village?” Then lots of villages, more villages, then a district, then lots of districts, then a country, then a continent. They’ve constantly changed and adjusted, because sometimes it works, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. So they’ve shifted. That was the playbook of smallpox.
Smallpox is gone. Smaller organizations do amazing things as well. There’s this great organization called One Acre Fund. They work in East Africa increasing the income and productivity of small-scale farmers. They are fanatical monitors of progress. They can see what services they are providing work, and what things aren’t working, and they adjust. They’re so in-tune with the agricultural sector in Kenya that they predicted a maize virus that was coming. They helped farmers diversify their crops. Those farmers today are thriving, while others are watching their maize stalks wilt. Water for People is a fundamentally different organization today than it was even five years ago, because we constantly ask hard questions, we constantly say, “What can we do better?”, and we adjust.
When non-profits talk to you about monitoring, they will tell you why they don’t do it. They will say that donors don’t really like bad news. That’s not my experience. Donors actually want to change things for the better. They want to do big things, and they will go on a journey if they think you’re progressing, and if they think that you’re addressing problems as they emerge.
Some will say, “Well, they won’t pay for it.” If you have staff, petrol, and a car, you can monitor. If you have a cell phone, you can call someone and see if water is still flowing. Technology has enabled us to get real time data efficiently and cheaply, so this excuse doesn’t carry any water. C’mon you got to give me that one.
So, a lot will tell you, “Well, we haven’t really worked out our indicators. We’re thinking about it.” Hey, I’ll tell you what, call me back when you’ve figured it out. Some will say, and this is shocking, but some will say, “The nuances of results are too hard for the public to truly understand.” You should tell them to get their hands out of your pockets and stop saying that $25 will save a life.
We can do better, we can ask hard questions. Organizations that do move and improve all the time. But I’ve also learned that if you collect data and hold it to yourself, make it an inside thing, it doesn’t really work. You miss the beauty and the transformative power of data. I was in Namaqualand, a beautiful part of South Africa, wildflowers bloom in the spring.