Ned Breslin – TRANSCRIPT
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.