Let’s be clear about ownership in development

“We left the last construction process for the community to finish.” Someone told me when I asked why the construction for a hand pump was not completed. That was a year ago. The pump itself was working but the gutter was left undone. So if someone uses the pump, the water was to roam about and make a huge pool where mosquitos can thrive and fly. There was a lock which kept people from using the pump without contributing their share. I asked, “so does the community have any plan to finish anytime soon?” “No, they said they don’t have money to buy cements and pebbles,” he answered. “Then what’s our plan?” I asked. He said, “we wait until they show their ownership.” I was new and was still learning from my successor’s work without my successor present, so I didn’t say more.

A few days later, some people dig a hole connected to the water pump and the lock was removed. The place was flooded with kids from the near school and ladies from the near village. However the pit which was supposed be filled by stones brought by community as a sign of their “ownership” was still wide open without any stones. There was no “community ownership” but so was project responsibility. Whether the community takes ownership or not, it is the organisation’s responsibility to make sure the project worked including anticipating risks. I kept thinking that the organisation could’ve finished without leaving any part especially when it’s so apparent that the community wasn’t going to put any money on it. Then a year passed.

I have been away from my office for about a month and been working in another office. It was yesterday when I started working in my office and saw a couple of children carrying a bucket of water from a water source far away from the hand pump which was installed a year ago. I asked one of my team members why they don’t use the hand pump we installed near our office. He said it has been broken. “When?” I asked. “A few weeks ago,” he replied. His excuse for not telling me about it was because we had an agreement with the community that we will not be responsible for the maintenance because the community has an ownership.

I understand the maintenance issue has been considered one of the biggest problems in installing water pumps in many other countries. Many organisations tried to figure out how to prevent the pumps getting broken after they left. Giving an ownership to communities or community committees and having them take care of them was one way to make it work. And this was the logic behind the us not getting involved in maintenance. But really? Is it what we do?

The result is a disaster. The pump is broken and no one is responsible. The pump hasn’t been maintained because the committee claimed it didn’t have money (MWK6,000) to pay for the whole year’s maintenance.

So the community didn’t take “ownership”. Does that mean they don’t deserve safe water? I believe development project should not count its result on reciprocity, moral obligation, or trade. They could certainly play an important role as part of projects. But if the project fails to provide safe water at the end, as this case suggests, it is to blame the poor project planning which failed to count risks. It’s like someone knocks on the door of a family who are starving for years, he lets himself in and say he will give them an advice how to become diligent and efficient so that the family won’t go starve again. And he asks for consultation fee.

Not to mention the wrongness of the logic, the word “ownership” seems to be misused. Ownership isn’t really about the feeling that they think they feel like owning. Ownership is a package which involves project planning, budget planning, mobilising resources, executing, and facing responsibilities. We cannot expect for the community to have an ownership when obviously the owner is the organisation.


Photograph: Patrick Tomasso

Published by


An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *