The Complexity of Poverty: The Well Example

When it comes to poverty reduction, listening is far more important than speaking. Take the classic well example. An organization established a well for women in a rural community. These women had been walking hours each day to collect drinkable water for themselves and their families. An organization realized how silly this was and dug a well in the town center for everyone to use.

The humanitarians thought they had solved the problem, saving women several strenuous hours a day lugging water. These women could now spend time on other, more lucrative activities. But these aid workers returned 6 months later to the village to find the well was broken. The first issue was that no one in the village was trained in how to fix a well if it broke. The second problem was why the well was unusable after such a short amount of time. The humanitarians learned that several women in the community had purposely broken the well. They were dumbfounded. Who would want to destroy the well that saved these women hours a day?

The humanitarians had not done a proper assessment of the area where they were working, and were therefore not solving the root causes of poverty in the area. They assumed the lack of water exacerbated poverty, which was not incorrect, but they disregarded high domestic violence rates in the area. With the well fixed, women were spending more time at home and their husbands had more opportunities to become violent towards their wives. Domestic violence rates increased significantly.

These women loved spending hours a day walking to collect water because it was a reprieve from the constant abuse they faced in their homes. They had no real way of getting out of the situation and domestic violence is commonplace in many rural villages in the area so there were no legal repercussions for these men. Until the domestic violence could be addressed, these women would continue to find joy an arduous task like lugging water.

We must continue to understand the context in which were working, otherwise our good intentions can do more harm than good.