Developing a Taste for Artisanal Development

Water tank in Lempira, Honduras, where COCEPRADIL, a cooperative of water committees, has been supporting communities to improvie and maintain their water systems for more than 30 years.

This week, a call to action and reflection from Susan Davis: How can we acquire a taste for old school, artisanal, and built-to-last development?

By Susan Davis

Housemade, artisanal, craft. Backyard beekeeping, urban chickens, knitting, homemade pickles. In recent years, it’s become hip to be square. Hipsters like bands that no-one has heard of (on vinyl), unusual beers, and bikes with no gears. I don’t identify as hipster, but I can relate to some of it. I love my bike (with gears) and can identify with people who appreciate something that’s not mainstream. You feel like you’re in on a secret. Maybe how the people who drank Starbucks felt before it became an intergalactic omnipresent entity. I’ve definitely said “I was into craft beer before you were born” or something like it to the beardy dudes taking beauty shots of their IPAs.

So at the risk of ruining their appeal to hipsters, I’d like to introduce you to COCEPRADIL, a 30-year-old community organization you’ve probably never heard of. They began as a “housemade” organization in 1988 with support from Catholic Relief Services (CRS). What makes them special, if not unique, is 1) that they have community water systems with household connections and 2) almost all of those systems are still functioning 20 to 25 years after their original construction. Both of these are rare for community managed water systems in low income areas.

It was the first place my friend Marla Smith-Nilson visited as an intern. “They had piped water to the household,” she said. “They kept accounts of water payments. Imagine if I had gone to a place where they had just a community handpump, that wasn’t working well.” This is why the organization she founded, Water1st International, has high standards for its partner organizations, and visits them every year (or more frequently) to check on their progress. COCEPRADIL was the first organization whose water projects I visited in 1999, and they were truly old school.  We stayed in the training center, which didn’t have internet, or even phones, and also served as a warehouse for spare parts. They used what looked like walkie talkies for communications.

Photo courtesy of Susan Davis. From the 1999 visit to CODEPRADIL.

It was a treat to go back to see them in 2011, with a group of donors, peer organizations in the area, and two independent evaluators for the first Accountability Forum (now called Water for Life Ratings . Over a week, the group evaluated COCEPRADIL’s body of work based on 22 criteria of effectiveness. The evaluation found:

Their successes include the fact that systems installed 20 years ago are still functioning and being used. Local water boards are in place and in all communities we visited, households were paying monthly tariffs and boards had positive bank accounts that had increased over the past two years. The communities’ sense of system ownership is very high: we were told by one water board ‘we are all engineers and plumbers here’, and they were very confident in their ability to find spare parts and fix breakdowns. COCEPRADIL staff attribute their success to extensive training with communities upfront, during and post-implementation.

Photo courtesy of Susan Davis. From COCEPRADIL community meeting for the Accountability Forum in 2011.

Not everything was rosy. High connection fees restricted access for new households. The point of having this high fee is to encourage households to participate upfront, with up to 90 days of labor per family. In some communities, water continuity was a challenge as the flows changed seasonally. Water cuts could last days or weeks if repairs were needed. While it was great that systems were lasting 20 years plus, they were realizing that communities couldn’t afford to replace aging systems.

I was reminded of COCEPRADIL during a chat at the Aguasan Workshop in June. Not just because of the mountainous terrain in Switzerland, but because a colleague Matthias told me about his visit to a water kiosk in Chyasal, Nepal. It was built in 2007 by Urban Environmental Management Society, a Kathmandu-based NGO. The kiosk has been upgraded continuously over the past 11 years and is still working. He asked around – had anyone had tried to replicate their success? A large international NGO had funded a few other kiosks through UEMS, but said that it was “not their job” to replicate more broadly.

I brought this up while having a beer with Marla recently. She said that the Accountability Forum results were a confidence builder for COCEPRADIL.  They had lost funding from a long-term supporter over some political issues in Honduras. To address the issue of replacing larger infrastructure, COCEPRADIL proposed a revolving loan fund, and Water1st helped with seed capital. Since 2011 they have been installing water meters in each household. This took some doing, as households were reluctant to have meters.  They are now starting to digitize their current data using laptops also funded by Water1st.

Back when I visited them in 2001, the president told us that about 85% of their projects were successful based on improved hygiene attitudes, observed living conditions, and whether the community had not gone back to hauling water from springs. I think their success rate is even higher now. You can see the location and status of several of their more recent projects (2006 and onward) by clicking on the blue dots on this map.

With a demonstrated and independently validated track record of success, not just with water functionality, but with governance and finance, Marla and I wondered “Why isn’t COCEPRADIL more popular with funders?” Why hasn’t anyone tried to replicate their model of a committee of committees? Why have few in the WASH sector heard of them? I’ve definitely mentioned them to several people when they ask me the inevitable question “You’ve told us about all these failures. So what does work over time?”

Well, for one, they have a difficult to remember name. COCEPRADIL (pronounced “ko say pra deel”) is an acronym for Comite Central Pro-Agua y Desarollo Integral de Lempira (Central Committee for Water and Holistic Development of Lempira).  They have no website, although they did recently set up a Facebook page. They’re based in and work around Lempira, western Honduras, a place that few tourists have on their bucket lists (although it’s beautiful terrain), and probably hasn’t featured in any James Bond movies. It’s also one of the poorest, most isolated regions of the country. Close to 30% of the population is below the poverty line. I remember seeing corn growing on a 45 degree slope. The farmer had tied himself to a tree so that he could work in the field.

Photo courtesy of Susan Davis. The steep hills of Lempira, Honduras.

Perhaps their lack of broader support is in part because they are too humble. Leonel (the current director) is a farmer. They’re probably not going to international WASH conferences, which are often held just in English, so they don’t realize (or don’t care) that what they’re doing is more successful than many others. They don’t like to communicate by email, Marla explained. They prefer to have face to face meetings or Skype calls. Or maybe it’s just that “They are boring,” Marla joked, “because they are just providing services that you and I expect every day.”

Are only things that are “innovative” (and thus unproven over time) and well marketed going to get attention?

I’m sure that COCEPRADIL is not the only organization toiling away in relative obscurity. Matthias was surprised that UEMS’s work was not well documented, even though some big names had been funding them. How can we find and better support artisanal development when they’re too busy doing great work to set up websites and write newsletters? How can we acquire a taste for old school, hand-built-to-last development? (I keep trying IPAs in hopes there will be one I like.)

Maybe we need to work harder at being donors. Water1st, for example, does a comprehensive organizational assessment that includes visiting past projects before they invest.

Susan Davis is founder and Executive Director of Improve International.