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Simple solutions often the best to fight poverty

ICE news

THE ACUTE problems faced by developing world communities in accessing potable water, sanitation, electricity and adequate housing are best tackled by smallscale projects involving local people, said Arup director for sustainable engineering David Singleton, delivering the ICE's annual Brunel lecture last month.

Singleton set out a manifesto for poverty alleviation that gives community members key responsibilities for design, construction, operation, maintenance and project finance.

He also called into question the benefit of international aid.

Over the past 50 years, rich nations have given ú700bn in aid to poor nations, but to little avail, Singleton said. 'Poor countries that receive lots of aid do no better, on average, than those that receive very little.'

The scale of world poverty is so great that aid agencies, voluntary organisations, United Nations and government development programmes, projects involving multi-national businesses and international banks can only address isolated problems, he added.

Engineering projects run into trouble when they are imposed on people without involving them directly. Communities are left with little sense of ownership. Solutions can be simply inappropriate. They can cost too much, meaning that people do not use them. They can also cost too little, leading people to undervalue and neglect them.

Aid programmes are hijacked by political interference, corruption, and simply fall apart in countries that lack any alleviation strategy of their own.

Meanwhile, too often in the past, projects have been delivered by engineers who have not trained local people in operation and maintenance, or who have not looked at the availability of spare parts when replacement is necessary, Singleton said.

'The conditions that are necessary for a sustainable reduction in poverty levels are empowered communities with a sense of community ownership, ongoing operation and maintenance programmes, regional and national government involvement, selection of projects that lead to economic growth and a strong market economy.'

Simple solutions are often the most sustainable, he concluded.

Case study 1 In 1997 only 39% of people living in Myanmar in South East Asia had access to sanitation. Past programmes in which the government provided free toilet pans were phased out due to cost and low levels of public support.

Under the new scheme, communities were educated on a house by house basis about the role of sanitation in reducing communicable disease. However, they were charged with meeting their own sanitation needs. As awareness of the benefits of sanitation grew, so did demand for toilet pans. Community-based private sector businesses were established to supply materials and to help with installation. By 2001 sanitation coverage had increased to 57%.

Case study 2 Solar panels supplied by BP Solar were installed on many of the 7,100 islands making up the Philippine archipelago to provide electricity needed for vaccination storage at medical centres, pump water and light public buildings so that people could engage in further education. Around 720,000 people benefited, and more than 2,000 were trained in technical, operational and planning issues involved in installing and operating the panels.

Case study 3 Housing in Bangladesh is routinely swept away by floods. People are charged exorbitant rates of interest by money lenders when they borrow to rebuild their homes. By designing more durable structures and providing a community-based 'microfinance' banking system, it has been possible to reduce dramatically people's spending on construction, saving more of their income for health and education.

Homes have a reinforced concrete pier at each corner with stout bamboo intermediate posts, cross bracing and a corrugated iron roof. This structure can withstand flooding.

Microfinance works by gathering people into groups which grant a loan to one of their members. The group ensures repayments are made on time - repayment rates are generally 98%-100%. Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, incorporated in 1983, has grown to 2.4M members. The government owns only a 10% equity stake, with the remainder held by members.

Case study 4 To improve water supply in South Africa, an innovative pumping system has been developed by a private sector firm. The pump, installed above a borehole, is driven by a playground-style roundabout. While their mothers fill containers with water, children spin the roundabout which lifts up to 1,400litres/hour of water to a header tank. The pumps are paid for by community groups or local councils, and local people install and maintain them. So far, 300 have been commissioned, benefiting 750,000 people.

Case study 5 Remote Aboriginal communities in Australia were facing huge challenges in developing and maintaining infrastructure - failing due to lack of maintenance funds and poor technical and management skills. To improve the situation a three-year project was initiated in 1999 to train and certify community members in maintenance techniques. These individuals have become employees of the regional authority. Assets have been logged on to a register and regular inspection regimes established.

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