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The View from Here: Change in human behavior

Mike Gangwer Published on 03 June 2011

During Christmas of 2010, I was assigned to Embassy Islamabad, Pakistan. I wrote four articles about the assignment there. One day about the end of December, I received a Christmas package from my wife, Sandy. In it was the book “Three Cups of Tea” written by Greg Mortenson.

I did not read it.

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I kept it with me and now it sits on my bookshelf in Alma, Michigan.

For those of you following the story, the premise behind Greg’s effort is secondary to the actual conditions on the ground. Greg sought to build schools largely in Pakistan and to some extent in Afghanistan. If a school is available, boys are attending and, in most cases, girls are not.

Greg sought to help fix that by finding the funding to actually build the school structure (the building itself) and then encouraging the staffing by teachers and attendance by both boys and girls. Except that, in many cases, the story is one of an output only and not an outcome.

That is, a building is just a building; a structure is but a structure, but it takes people … teachers and local support, to make it a school. An output is the building; an outcome is an increased number of students, boys and girls attending a school and learning to read, write, use mathematics and understand civil and social skills.

Greg was able to make his case for donations, in the tens of millions of dollars, that was administered by his Central Asian Institute. What we are learning now is schools were built but there was little if any follow-up with asking the hard questions about an operational budget, operation, maintenance and, most importantly, the teachers themselves.

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For those of us in the global developmental business, we are easily lured into the funding of projects that are outputs. We hire an engineering firm to build a series of schools. We have a ribbon-cutting ceremony and then we depart. We have other projects to manage.

I clearly recall doing this kind of work in Afghanistan. We paid for and facilitated the building of roads, bridges, schools, medical clinics and communication centers. And we had many, many opening ceremonies. Yes, we asked the local officials if they had the resources to operate and manage the output, and they always said yes, or something along the lines of “we will figure that out after it is built.”

I often make the case, as do my colleagues, that providing an output is very simple. We install a drip irrigation or center pivot irrigation system. We build a soil fertility laboratory. We give veterinarians a suite of vaccines and then build a storage unit for them.

We take a picture of this new output and, with a positively written story, make the news that we, Americans, have done some good work in some far-away land. This statement has some truth … we are doing some good. But the good portion takes a lot more work and time.

Is the output truly what the host government wants? Are they capable of OMM (operation, maintenance and management)? And is the output truly sustainable after we have gone on to the next project or even left the country?

We do engage in forthright discussions with our hosts. We have learned that if we do not, every output looks good and none are refused. Such discussion is a dialogue between two very different cultures, but in a sense is a business discussion.

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We will do our part with funding and technical assistance; you will do your part in correctly operating, maintaining and managing the output after it is installed. Generally the discussion begins with exploring the development model through their eyes, not ours.

Often, I write of the use of social scientists to help us understand the human landscape, the feelings and capabilities of our hosts. Our objective is minimizing the risk, if you will, of projects that are only outputs rather than truly ones that are positive outcomes. And as I have written in this column several times already, the outcome we seek is a positive change in human behavior.

For the schools Greg’s Institute built, the desirable outcome is quite simple. We visit a school a year after it was built. If we find children in the classrooms and teachers next to the chalkboard and village/community support, then we have changed this place on earth.

The outcome is young people having knowledge that they did not have before. Is this a positive change in human behavior? Absolutely. Of course the case is made: What is being taught?

This question is a very important one. If the school is teaching an ideologue approach that is contrary to moving a country, like Pakistan, into the modernity of the world, then this is not a beneficial outcome. Further, we know that while a country may have a long history of a particular kind of ideologue, it is not a slave to it.

Exposure to the modern arts and sciences can be made without denigrating a culture or social norm or religion. This is the hard part of answering the question; OK, now the school is built, what’s next?

As for Greg Mortenson, the author himself, we all wanted a positive enduring story of development drawn upon the good idealistic ethos of altruism … we come, we build and then in the photo are children sitting at desks.

The American nomad that saves the world, at least this part of it, by teaching the mind and developing the brain of our most precious people … the children. All it takes is a building and a set of desks with a chalkboard.

But the reality is something else. Including the lack of a national education program instead of the scattershot approach. Including the discussion about operationalizing the sustainability part of running a school. Including the assurance at every level in these countries that education support is not only expressed, but funded as well.

Greg’s schools are good outputs. They are just incomplete of following through with the very difficult work of engagement that helps answers the “now what?”

We ought not to give up on developmental work in far-away lands, nor should we hold back funding these works either as private citizens or the U.S. government. There is much to do, as clearly evidenced by the rapid changes under way in much of the world.

From agencies the size of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to the smallest for- profit or not-for-profit efforts, closer scrutiny of development is essential. And so is the fundamental fact that output development is incomplete.

It is the positive change in human behavior that we seek, and this is an outcome of our entire developmental effort. Anything less is wasting resources, money and human effort. We cannot do this anymore. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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