The Second Tragedy of International Development

This post was transferred from my old blog. See the original post (with comments) at:


I wrote the below article for The Pillar, the engineering student newspaper at the University of New Brunswick (where I studied Civil Engineering). A friend recently suggested I share the article on this blog. So here it is. (Also, apologies for going 1.5 months without posting anything).



EXPLORING CHANGE Promoting human development and driving extraordinary change requires a solid understanding of the complexities of poverty and the challenges to development that exist in both developing communities and here in Canada. This column examines the work of Engineers Without Borders volunteers, offers examples of new perspectives on old development problems, and shares our learning along the way.

For the almost 6 million people in rural Malawi who lack access to a safe supply of clean water close to their home, a lack of life-sustaining water is a daily challenge.

More than a challenge though, it's also a tragedy.

Without a safe water supply, young children become victim to dehydration from diarrheal diseases, leading to over 11,000 preventable deaths caused by diarrhea every year. That's five times the number of kids under 5 years old in Fredericton, dying every year from something completely preventable.

If that's not a tragedy, then the word has no meaning.

More insidious, but in many ways no less tragic, is the burden of carrying water, which falls almost exclusively on women and girls. Frequently having to travel several kilometers to the nearest water source, women and girls in Malawi lose countless hours, and expend valuable energy, on this inescapable chore. This time and energy could otherwise be spent studying, resting, or growing additional food on the farm, to name only a few alternatives.

Together, these two factors - preventable childhood mortality from diarrheal diseases and chronic fatigue from carrying water - represent what's often called the First Tragedy of international development, poverty itself. The First Tragedy is enough to get people caring. You can take the underlying statistics, add a few sad looking pictures, and start a fundraising campaign. People will donate. People will support your work.

However, all of this neglects the Second Tragedy, the fact that
things don't need to be this way. Over the last 40 years Malawi has received enough investment in its water infrastructure that rural water coverage could be 82% and growing, instead of being at only 50.7% today. The difference would be almost another 4 million people with clean water access.

The problems are simple - too simple. Infuriatingly simple.

The first problem is maintenance - everyone wants to install water infrastructure, no one wants to maintain it. $10,000 pumps sit broken for lack of a $1 part. Rather than repairing them, international donor countries (like Canada) prefer to pour money into new infrastructure. It's a huge wasted opportunity, and it's measured in human lives.

The second problem is planning. Pressured to spend their budgets quickly, organizations don't plan properly for the location of new infrastructure. The result is that some villages end up with more wells than they need, while other villages are chronically ignored.

This bad planning is exacerbated by commonly held views that foreign aid money needs to "get to the ground", leading donors to pressure organizations to minimize overhead - a classic case of confusing efficiency with effectiveness.

The result is...well, bad results.

Poor planning means that money spent on water infrastructure doesn't go as far as it can.

Malawi Water Coverage Graph

So there it is. The pie chart shows the impact of these stupid problems, lack of planning and lack of maintenance, on water access in Malawi. It shows the Second Tragedy of international development. It shows that we need to get smarter, that we need to use our aid money better. It shows the problems that we're working on at Engineers Without Borders. They're pretty important problems. We could use your help.

Owen Scott is a UNB Civil Engineering graduate working with Engineers Without Borders Water-Point Functionality team in Malawi




  1. greetings to all.
    I would first like to thank the writers of this blog by sharing information, a few years ago I read a book called costa rica investment in this book deal with questions like this one.

  2. Hello Owen!! I feel that your material makes good reading. however, I would request that you substantiate your statements and make sure you avoid being too emotional. I mean the choice of words like 'stupid problems'. You would also do well to read documents on rural water supply in Malawi like the strategic plan, the National Water Policy including District Investment Plans. For sure you will note that the country plans and conducts maintenance of the facilities.

    Thanasius in Malawi