The Common Good
February 2006

What Works

by Stephen C. Smith | February 2006

Gaining ground against poverty: From Africa, three innovative solutions.

A simple merry-go-round, propelled by children’s feet, is a playground staple that we remember from childhood. The Play-Pump, an ingenious product from Roundabout Outdoor, uses just two moving parts to channel the tireless energy of playing children into a well pump that fills a 30-foot-high tank.

Hundreds of Play-Pumps have been installed in South Africa and elsewhere, often right next to schools—giving children an added incentive to attend. The children get a delightful playground toy, and their fun helps to improve their families’ access to water. The only problem is convincing the kids to get off the Play-Pump when it’s time to go home.

Health begins with safe water. But in South Africa, the poor often live a mile or more from water sources. Risks of cholera and other diseases from contaminated water are high. Because many public hand pumps are placed directly over the borehole, spilled water can seep back in—often after contamination by animals. Most public water tanks are empty, and, even where electricity is available, the poor cannot afford the piping and power pumps used by the rich. So women and girls must spend tremendous time and energy trudging twice a day to draw water.

The suffering, vulnerability, and powerlessness of poverty are a daily reality for a staggering number of people worldwide. But in the last two decades, the share of the world’s people living on less than a dollar per day has fallen from almost two in five to one in five. Striking successes in developing countries’ public health include reductions in river blindness, polio, guinea worm disease, Chagas disease, and infant deaths due to diarrhea. Fertility has fallen dramatically in most developing countries.

But further progress against poverty is challenging, as many are trapped in vicious cycles. The children of child laborers become child laborers themselves. Those who are ill and malnourished do not work productively enough to afford the medicines and food needed to earn more in the future.

Government is sometimes part of the problem. But throughout Africa, the torch is being picked up by the citizen sector, with some needed help from outside. The Play-Pump is just one example of new strategies to help the poor escape poverty’s snares.

Safe Water and Changed Lives

Most South African children have never enjoyed the playground equipment that Americans take for granted. A merry-go-round is great fun; the surprisingly powerful Play-Pump is also effective to a much greater depth than a hand pump. Pumping the water from deeper in the ground and piping it to a covered storage tank reduces waste, contamination risk, and environmental damage.

For all these benefits, each Play-Pump costs only $5,000 to $10,000—less than $25 for each of the 400 people that it benefits. Based only on the benefits of safer water and time saved—even before considering the environmental advantages or the value of the merry-go-round for the children—this is a sound social investment.

More than 600 Play-Pumps have been installed to date, benefiting more than 200,000 South Africans, as well as people in Mozambique and Zambia. Funding sources include foundation grants, partners such as the World Bank and UNICEF, and oneTM bottled water, popularized at the Live 8. In a new initiative, demonstration Play-Pumps are being installed at major amusement parks in the United States and United Kingdom, with videos of life in African communities before and after the Play-Pumps. The demonstrations create the opportunity for some of the world’s most privileged children to assist some of the least—their parents can make a contribution on-site to help pay for the building and installation of the pumps in Africa.

Maintenance is financed by proceeds from advertising billboards near the pumps and wells. Some contain messages to help prevent the spread of HIV, a scourge that now infects almost one-fourth of the adult population of South Africa. The advertisers are designated as Play-Pump sponsors. This makes financial sustainability more likely—an important consideration in the developing world, where the attention spans of governments and development agencies can be very short.

While I was trying out one of the Play-Pumps in South Africa, a group of children came by on their way home from school. While the boys jumped on the merry-go-round with me, the girls stood by, talking to Play-Pumps CEO Trevor Field. At one point, the girls started laughing. Trevor explained later that he had said to them, “See, now the boys are fetching the water for you!”

Environment and Livelihoods

The United Nations Equator Prize recognizes programs that alleviate poverty while preserving the environment to meet the needs of future generations. In 2003, one such award went to the Suledo Forest Community in Tanzania, a network of autonomous, community-based organizations that manages the forest land of nine villages which together have about 55,000 residents.

The forest is the home of the Masai herders, whose 40,000 cattle graze between the trees. For centuries the Masai had practiced environmentally sustainable grazing and timber harvesting. But then for several years the Tanzanian government zoned the remote area as “unreserved forests” on public land and collected fees from the harvesting of valuable tree species, such as sandalwood and mpingo.

The forest was managed by corrupt officials, who variously poached, took bribes from other poachers, and granted unwarranted timber licenses. Even when trees were removed legally, only 20 percent of the revenue was returned to the district—and only 20 percent of that amount to the villages. Meanwhile, invading settlers threatened the Masai and government forest revenues alike. Traditional village control of natural resources had broken down.

Things came to a head in 1994, when the government reclassified the forest as a government reserve. Officials surveyed and marked off land in which activities such as forest grazing would be illegal. They took an inventory of trees that could be cut. The Masai villagers lived inside these boundaries; their livelihoods and indeed their entire way of life were now illegal. At this point, Village Environmental Management Committees—set up with funding and advice from the Swedish International Development Agency—determined to take back control of resource management from the government. After a struggle, the government agreed to community-based management of the land.

The Suledo Forest Community is restoring village management of common property resources. The Environmental Management Committees are elected democratically and include female and non-Masai members. Leaders are trained in forest management. Strongly participatory methods, such as village-based land-use mapping, are a key to program success. Decisions are established as official village by-laws, giving them the force of law.

Each village forest reserve is zoned with one of three land-use designations: grazing (about 80 percent of the 167,000 total hectares of land), agricultural expansion, and total protection. The grazing area includes subzoning to ensure sustainability, and boundaries are marked with bright yellow paint. Young men who would otherwise be unemployed take part in forest patrols, reporting transgressions that can lead to fines.

After an initial burst of enthusiasm, it took several years for Suledo’s achievements to become well established. Despite improved controls, settlers and ranchers continued to come into the area. It took some time for the legal system to work effectively, requiring coordination between the village organizations and the Tanzanian government.

But enforcement is steadily improving. There is still some corruption, allegedly even at the village level, but it is diminishing. Observers say that the main problems, such as poaching, have been solved in seven of the nine villages. Evaluators have already identified significant poverty reduction and increased biodiversity. The ethnic and gender balance of the committees is impressive, and female members speak with pride about how their participation is transforming their lives in the village.

I had the honor of attending one village’s Equator Prize celebration. About 60 Masai—men in red and women in purple—greeted Swedish program head “Mama” Harriet Rehn and her visitors. A choir serenaded us with songs about their work and their forests, with its beautiful animals and trees. Dancers gave wonderful traditional performances.

The success of the program is having an impact on Tanzanian development policies: Similar programs are being attempted in other parts of the country. In the meantime, natural resources and traditional practices are being preserved for future generations.

Dreams for the Future

In Cairo, the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women works to improve the lives of the women and children living in the poorest female-headed households. Many of these women came to the slums from poor rural areas after being deserted, divorced, or widowed. ADEW lobbies the government to change policies that harm women; the organization also works directly with the poor.

The ADEW Girls’ Dreams Program began after staff started hearing about problems experienced by clients’ adolescent daughters, who are commonly stuck at home taking care of siblings and maintaining households while their mothers work long hours—those girls, that is, not working similar jobs themselves. The girls’ responsibilities can run from early in the morning to late at night. The only dreams for the future that many of them have are to get some rest or to get married. Without a vision of a better future, it is difficult for them to take steps to achieve one.

Now some of these girls are taught skills for self-expression. They are given classes in art and music and visits to a park—a great treat in the lives of girls who almost never leave their slum environment and for whom a park admission fee is prohibitive. Then they begin to imagine a better future.

I visited a class in one of Cairo’s worst slums. There were 15 girls in the group, ranging in age from 10 to 14, all daughters of ADEW clients. In the first class, the girls were unable to express many thoughts about the future. Asked to select a subject for an art lesson, they chose the environment. The girls made paintings and etchings on paper and glass; they drew from their imaginations with obvious enthusiasm. I saw no trees in the neighborhood, but almost every picture contained at least one tree.

While they were working, I asked how the environment where they live could be improved. Fadwa said that they should clean the streets, bring garbage baskets for trash and encourage others to do the same, and then plant trees. Nadia noted the metal factories in and near the apartment buildings, factories that gave off unhealthy smoke and toxic chemicals. These, she said, should be required to move somewhere else, adding that she hates the way “people throw their garbage out their windows.”

Rowya told me that all the buildings should be the same height, because the higher ones block the air from the lower ones, and because thieves climb up from one roof to the next. Mona complained about noise. She wanted a law preventing the use of loud machines and microphones where people live. She also said that we should stop cutting down the trees and should use water only for what we need, not waste it. Ranya suggested sewage pipes, because the houses were full of unhealthy stagnant waters that made people sick. “I want to live in a healthy place,” she added.

The Girls’ Dreams Program also helps girls develop important life skills, such as negotiating with family and employers. The program has helped some girls overcome long odds and return to school; many have joined ADEW’s literacy program. ADEW won a 2004 Pro-Poor Innovation Challenge Award, which it is using to expand the Girls’ Dreams Program.

We don’t know what will happen to these impoverished but optimistic children. They have already encountered harsh realities of life, and they continue to face obstacles in the Cairo slums. But they have dared to dream of a better future.

Throughout the developing world, hundreds of promising innovations are being implemented. Even when governments fail to deliver services and growth is hard to sustain, the citizen sector is stepping up to help the poorest in their efforts to help themselves.

Stephen C. Smith is a professor of economics at George Washington University. Parts of this article are adapted from his new book, Ending Global Poverty: A Guide to What Works (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

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