Bottom-Up Design: Recovering from Disaster in Bangladesh

By Bryant Renaud
posted on November 10, 2013 in Global Development, Politics and Society

Minhaj Chowdhury is a co-founder of Drinkwell, an organization with the noble goal of eliminating arsenic poisoning in rural Bangladesh. High levels of arsenic in water caused the “largest mass poisoning in history” for more than thirty years in the rural villages of Bangladesh.  Minhaj’s organization is trying to stop the suffering. On October 29th, he spoke to the International Development Discussion Group about his successes and failures in undertaking this ambitious project.

 I expected Minhaj to expound on the 77 million Bangladeshis exposed to the toxin, the fact that 20% of all deaths in Bangladesh are related to arsenic exposure, and the cruel, destabilizing affects this blight has on communities. I thought he would go through the painstaking efforts of humanitarians to sink tube wells across the country to provide Bangladeshis with access to clean water, and how these efforts unintentionally led to mass affliction because specialists neglected to test subterranean waters for heavy metals.

Minhaj covered the crisis, but only briefly, and refused to linger on images of suffering or data on arsenic exposure. Instead, he dove right into the solution process. Minhaj received a fellowship as a college student and invested the funds he received in cheap, easy-to-maintain water filters invented by a Bangladeshi engineer. By the development handbook, he did everything right. The filter addressed the problem (filtered out arsenic), fit the context (it holds and filters the amount of water that the traditional water carrying basin carries), and fit rural families’ cost constraints (Minhaj used his funding to give filters out for free).

A year later, however, when Minhaj returned to Bangladesh, this time as a Fulbright scholar, he found that only 3 percent of the filters were still in use.

Deeply disappointed, he reflected on the experience, and drew several lessons: First, never underestimate the effect outsiders can have in a village that rarely receives visitors. Minhaj and his colleagues realized their visits sometimes led to significant changes in a village’s social fabric; a few of these changes even undermined the work they were trying to do. Minhaj also learned that social context is extremely important and easy to overlook.  Using filters on water buckets meant that most people needed to spend less time at the village pond.  Spending less time at the pond meant villagers spent less time socializing — a significant negative impact for many villagers. Minhaj learned another lesson: It is important to try and anticipate whether an innovation will have unintended effects on positive social aspects of local cultures.

Finally, when he returned to Bangladesh, Minhaj reexamined his initial practice of giving out filters for free. He soon realized that making filters freely available essentially excluded local people from the distribution process. It also eliminated the possibility of involving local people in ways that gave them at least some opportunities to earn income through facilitating the adoption of the filters and promoting their use. Minhaj’s final lesson was that any successful intervention should strive to create opportunities for local people.

As a result of the lessons he learned, Minhaj built a new business model to promote other methods of eliminating arsenic from village drinking water supplies. It was then that Minhaj and colleagues formed Drinkwell. Minhaj and his colleagues now spend their time building water treatment plants in rural villages at the cost of approximately $2,000 (USD). With the help of local communities, Drinkwell selects a “micro-entrepreneur” to operate the plant and sell the water to their neighbors. The entrepreneur in turn hires a driver and two helpers. With a chunk of the profit going to her pocket, the entrepreneur has a solid, built-in incentive to expand the market and get more people to drink healthy, arsenic-free water.

The Drinkwell story offers a refreshing break from the defeatism that so often accompanies stories of international aid efforts in the media. Minhaj’s story is an inspiring tale of how development practitioners can overcome setbacks with thoughtful analysis, hard work, and by assessing results.

That underscores an age-old lesson: If a solution seems too easy to be true, it often is.  Minhaj’s initial setbacks were part of a long history of failed attempts to provide access to clean water in Bangladesh. Too often, as in the tube-well project’s case, theoretically sure solutions were adopted too quickly. Small-scale piloting — with time to monitor outcomes — should be a prerequisite to the widespread rollout of these projects. Eagerness to find quick solutions often leads to failures that could have been avoided with more preparation and testing.

Minhaj reminds us that development practitioners need to learn from previous attempts in order to solve complex problems when human lives are at stake. It is necessary to find a solution that fits the social and cultural needs of a local community, takes into account the effects of Western intervention, and creates opportunities for members of the community. There is an even more critical reason for learning these lessons: listening to the people we seek to help and learning about the social fabric of their lives is vital to success. The more we can design interventions from the ground up, the more likely they are to lead to popular and therefore sustainable solutions.