Can service trips foster development?

During my stay in Nkokonjeru, I have made friends with people from Peace Corps, NGOs and university students and get to know various projects they are working on. I wonder how much the projects initiated by the developed world can help development in poor countries.

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The picture above was taken when I followed a group of American students on their trip to a nearby village to build latrines. These latrines, unlike the common latrines made from soil and straws, are built from brick and cement. It conserves urine without attracting too many flies. We went to the household and saw a pile of bricks lying 10 meters away from the building site. Then the ten of us lined up and moved the bricks from there to the latrine site. That’s basically all we did for the whole morning. The builders were the ones to prepare the cement, lay the bricks, check the set up, and so on. My friends and I sat there and watch. Some of us even brought novels to read.

A latrine like this costs no more than 280,000 UGX, equivalent to 112 USD. But it takes ten students to supervise the process of building it. I asked the local NGO contact person:”What if we give the money to the family directly and ask them to build a latrine?” “Well, they might not spend it this way. People might spend on emergent medical bills. Women can even spend it on hair treatment or buying a new dress. A clean latrine doesn’t seem to be that important.”

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Some engineer friends of mine are building bio-sand water filters at the NGO I’m working with. The technology is simple: local sand and gravels are mixed to create a biological film which kills the bacteria in the water. Households are supposed to pour enough water into the tank every morning and can enjoy safe water at minimal cost. The NGO distributes these filters for free or at a reduced price. While the idea seems great, the process of building it costs a lot of labor and time. First, you need to find and gather a large amount of sand and gravels of appropriate size. Then you wash and dry them. But you have to make sure they are not too clean — or you have to add silts. Finally, you place the sand and the gravels into the filter (in a pre-specified pattern) and test the speed of water flow. You adjust the setup until the flow rate reaches its optimal level.
The biggest chunk of costs here is labor. And this cost extends well beyond the completion of water filters. People are needed to educate families, do follow-ups, and perform regular checks. The effectiveness of these filters relies greatly on the funding for labor.

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The biggest problems many developing countries face can never be tackled by enthusiastic donors in the developed world. In a country where power and water can be cut off at any minute, communication networks can fail because of a heavy rain, and public transport is extremely unorganized and slow, any well-intended plan can fall into pieces. Such service trips, however, does a good job educating students and young researchers about the true causes of underdevelopment and awakens them from naive dreams of eliminating poverty through foreign aid.

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