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Counted Like Sheep — Retooling the WASH Model’s “Beneficiary” Indicators
By Water For People CEO Ned Breslin for Circle of Blue

I hate the word “beneficiary.”

Beneficiary is a misleading indicator and driver of development assistance. It implies passivity on the part of the “recipient” that does not mesh with my experience overseas, where people are indeed active agents of their own development, not simply recipients of donor benevolence.

Many organizations understand this and have implemented programs and projects with considerable up-front financing and sweat labor from community members. In good programs, communities are heavily involved in the planning and execution process—they are hardly
passive beneficiaries and do not deserve to be counted like sheep.

Yet people are still counted like sheep. Beneficiaries remain the only common measurement in the current model of the international water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector. NGOs (and others) take donor funds and support the installation of a new water point or a latrine. Then they figure out how many people benefited from the project and publish the results in annual reports that are emailed to donors and supporters, and, more recently, are posted on Twitter and
Facebook in hopes of garnering even more support.

Read any annual report, and the number of people helped last year—the number of beneficiaries—is often the key data point on which the organization wishes to be judged. Strategic planning generally follows a similar pattern—more countries and bigger budgets lead
to more beneficiaries.

The underlying message: good organizations help more people each year—showing scale, growth, and impact. Success is, in the end, measured by simply tallying up the number of beneficiaries served in a given year. Kind of like the McDonald’s of the development sector.

It’s true that the number of beneficiaries may show what happened in a given year, but it does not, in any way, prove whether the intervention was long lasting or transformative for the community.

And given the wreckage of failed water systems that litter Africa, Asia, and Latin America, it is really quite surprising that beneficiaries are still used as the primary indicator of impact. Anyone who checks back with communities from a few years ago can see that there are far too many who
have returned to using polluted rivers because water is no longer flowing from their WASH- implemented spigot.

The focus on annual beneficiary numbers emphasizes short-term results—it’s all about what you did this year—and has had significant and detrimental implications for the NGO community, let alone the communities we were supposed to have been helping.

Cost-Beneficiary Analysis

I worked for an organization that broke down beneficiaries by country, counting “success” only if a country contributed at least 50,000 beneficiaries toward the organization’s global targets. It had nothing to do with the quality of the work, just with the numbers. And this outlook tricklesdown—talk to field staff from organizations driven by this culture, and they will convey anxiety that they may not meet “this year’s numbers,” analyzing what this could mean for their program.

Since organizations often try to show how effective they are on a cost-per-beneficiary basis, financing and funding decisions can be influenced by beneficiary counts. And since the focus on beneficiaries rewards quick work, rather than more thoughtful interventions, and since “success” traditionally means more beneficiaries at less cost, organizations may choose to finance projects that are cheaper for the donor—dig a well instead of drilling a borehole, when the later is really
called for; support one community over another because the costs are cheaper; implement projects that are closer to the road, avoiding the hard-to-reach and expensive communities. This way of thinking can snowball to altogether avoiding the more expensive countries, where the challenges are real but the population densities are low, the costs are high, and the investments may undermine cost-to-beneficiary ratios that are a sad part of fundraising and marketing efforts.

But who would know, and who would question programmatic impact or funding decisions, as long as our beneficiary numbers continued to grow?

“The focus on beneficiaries masks the real costs in the water and sanitation development sector.”

Organizations trip all over themselves when trying to figure out the cost per beneficiary—$25 saves a life, or is the magic number $20? According to a documentary film I saw recently, the cost is only $6 per person, and this nominal fee covers that individual “for a lifetime.”

The focus on beneficiaries masks the real costs in the water and sanitation development sector, concentrating on the implementation of hardware and a bit of software—generally over a very short implementation period.

But the true cost of providing water and sanitation services sustainably is relatively unknown. With some degree of accuracy, we can say how much an initial intervention would be, but the true cost of ensuring water flows and toilets are used for decades is much higher than expected and certainly far more costly than what is spun through sloppy fundraising campaigns. The IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre’s WASHCost initiative is now publishing very
important work on these kinds of lifecycle costs—and they most definitely are not $20 per person.

The Long Haul

None of this is meant to diminish the work by NGOs in the WASH sector. Make no mistake; the day that a little girl drinks her first glass of clean water is magical. It is a milestone, and one that rightly brings tears of joy to the eyes of many people all around the world. By all means, we
should celebrate that great day.

But we must also understand that development is complex, and that, although the first day water flows may be the end of the job for (some) organizations, it is merely the beginning of a very long and difficult journey for those beneficiaries who were just counted by the organization and reported out to the world.

We must acknowledge this reality and shift away from annual beneficiaries as the goldenindicator of success. A more comprehensive model asks the really important questions—does this little girl continue to have water long after she was “counted” and the cameras have gone? Does water continue to flow in her community long enough for her to grow up, never having to return to that polluted scoop hole that kept her out of school as a child? And, one day in the distant future, do her children scratch their heads in utter confusion when she tries to explain
how she once collected water from a muddy hole instead of attending school?

Let’s be really honest—hard questions on long-term impact, investment decisions, as well as the true costs associated with providing lasting services will always be elusive if organizations can simply hide behind traditional beneficiary counts that utterly mask reality, contribute to poor programming, and distort actual field results. If we are to truly help eradicate water and sanitation poverty worldwide, we need to abandon beneficiaries as indicators of success and instead employ alternatives.

Ned Breslin blog at
Follow Ned Breslin on Twitter.

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