The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions — And Broken Toilets

Abandoned tractors, Kpachaa, Northern Region, Ghana, 2013. The tractors, originally meant to harvest the jatropha plant, are left over from a failed biofuel project.

Broken toilets, empty wells, and crumbling school buildings are the wreckage of failed and unfinished foreign aid projects littering sub-Saharan Africa. What Went Wrong? is a citizen journalism project that wants to map them.

“We are working to bring the voices of aid recipients to the forefront of the global discussion on foreign aid,” said Peter DiCampo, the photographer behind the project, “We’re inverting the traditional power dynamic by putting impact evaluation in the hands of the people most directly affected by aid interventions: the beneficiaries.” BRIGHT Magazine chatted with DiCampo more about the project, and what inspired it, below.

BRIGHT: What experiences inspired this project?

Peter DiCampo: I began by photographing my own aid project: as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Wantugu, Ghana, in 2008, I started a household latrine project that went nowhere. Years later, I went back and and saw that the concrete slabs meant to be the base of the latrines were still lying useless all over the community, one for each home.

Failed aid projects are ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa. Every day, people go about their lives with broken water systems towering over them. They live with some forgotten aid project or another tucked in the corner of a room in their home. As a photographer, I wanted to show how commonplace this is, to leave the viewer wondering what this must feel like.

But that felt incomplete. I wanted to dig into how people feel about aid. I was struck by how little agency aid recipients have regarding what they receive or whether it is deemed a success. In 2015, I was granted a Photography, Expanded Fellowship (a joint initiative of the Magnum Foundation and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation) to develop this idea; they paired me with designer Joe Wheeler, and he and I have been building since then.

BRIGHT: What is the most telling failed aid project you’ve ever seen? What is the funniest one?

PD: Oof, where to start? The library full of English-language books in a community where no one speaks it. The computer room that was locked and full of covered, unused computers at a school where they teach computers by drawing them on the blackboard. You have to laugh at these things if you want to stay sane!

BRIGHT: This project has been a while in the making. What was happening behind the scenes?

PD: We were testing methodologies and looking for funding, mostly. Joe and I developed a system for people to report failed aid projects from their phones but we didn’t know if it would work. We had a trial mobile survey system in Ghana, but we didn’t have funding for proper distribution or advertising. We also experimented with social media submissions as well. Mobile is great but you have to build a new system for each country, whereas a survey on Facebook works anywhere. But on the flip side, many people we want to reach don’t have internet access.

Finally, we received a Code for Africa ImpactAFRICA grant last year, and additional funding from Pulitzer Center, allowing us to test things more fully. We’re now working with Echo Mobile to create our mobile survey in Kenya.

The overall system is fairly expensive so we only have enough funding for two months for now. We’re basically trying to create a public customer service system without a revenue stream, so it’s tough to keep it afloat. It’s an experiment, but we’re hoping to show people the value in what we’re doing.

BRIGHT: Now that it’s off the ground, how does it work? How can people participate?

PD: In Kenya, people can text “AID” to 40069. Or, people can fill out the same survey on our Facebook page or send a message to @failedaid from anywhere.

Once we get a report we start doing background reporting. We dig around online and then Kenyan journalist Anthony Langat calls respondents to get more information. Once we have enough about a specific project we’ll start sharing reports over social media and tagging the relevant organizations which we hope will prompt a public dialogue. Then, we’ll share with survey respondents and their communities through phone calls and our radio partners to close the feedback loop. We hope the more report we collect, the more we’ll inspire the responsible organizations to follow up on broken or failed projects.

BRIGHT: Who are the radio partners?

We found three community radio stations to partner with: Pamoja FM in Kibera, Hero Radio in Nakuru, and Wajir Community Radio in Wajir. The three of them are broadcasting the number for people to call and submit a report, and doing on-air shows each week on this topic and our findings.

Unused concrete slabs, meant to be the base of latrines from a 2008 project, photographed 2013–2014, Wantugu, Northern Region, Ghana. Images by Peter DiCampo. Ghana, 2013-2014.

Unused concrete slabs, meant to be the base of latrines from a 2008 project, photographed 2013–2014, Wantugu, Northern Region, Ghana. Images by Peter DiCampo. Ghana, 2013-2014.

BRIGHT: How do you think the participatory element will affect the final product?

PD: Great question — hopefully, a lot! Our final publication will be based off of all the information reported by the public via the survey system. We’ll create data visualizations, pull quotes from reports, and then follow up in person with a handful of specific projects to do more in-depth reporting. But everything starts with someone making a report! It will be interesting to compare what we find with this methodology compared to what I’ve found in the past doing more traditional reporting.

BRIGHT: What kinds of projects do you hope to investigate? Do you want to look exclusively at complete failures? Or also projects that have had some success but not as much as expected?

Perhaps the most interesting part of this project is that it will be defined by the respondents. The types of project we investigate, and whether they can be considered a success, will be largely determined by what the aid recipients think. In Ghana, I once had a contractor answer the question, “Do you think this project was a success?” by telling me, “The work is done, therefore, it’s a success.” But it was a water project from which no one could get water!

We’re not only looking at complete failures. Some projects work, but at a much lower capacity than planned. Some projects work for limited timeframes. It will be interesting to dig into these definitions of success and failure on a case-by-case basis.

BRIGHT: How have communities with failed aid projects reacted so far?

We’ve received a steady flow of submissions, and we’re doing the background reporting now. It’s tough to read emotions through a survey system, but even from afar, it feels like the times that I’ve reported on this issue in person — people talk to you because they’re upset. They feel wronged and they’re vocal about it, but they don’t have much of an outlet or platform.

Of course, it’s a mobile survey so there are a range of responses (though there is a lot less spam than we anticipated, I’m happy to say). Some people leave incredibly detailed messages while others say something as vague as “failed sewer system.” But it’s been exciting to follow these leads and find some of the reported projects on nonprofit websites and begin the follow-up reporting.

BRIGHT: What does a Grade-A aid project look like for you? As in, what’s the benchmark we should be measuring failure against?

I’ll be honest — this is the most difficult question. It’s not really one that I have an answer to. I think it’s vital to say that silver bullets don’t exist, and the search for them has been an enormous detriment to the concept and practice of development. I suppose a Grade-A project is one in which everyone involved — community/recipients, donors, implementers — is in agreement that the project has been a success. But honestly, I’m struggling to recall one I’ve seen that fits.

For the range of projects I’ve reported on over the years in person, and the ones we’re already receiving in our system, they often need to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Ascribing specific criteria becomes difficult — for example, if a project is ongoing, but is taking longer than it should, do we call that a failure? What’s the length of time before we can name it as such? Some delays are understandable, of course, but is it three months or six months or a year before you start to assign blame? (The answer, of course, varies by project — but in all cases, transparency and public accountability are useful tools.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, how long does a project have to last in order to be a success? I photographed an abandoned nutrition center in Ghana, a big, nice building that was unused. But, it had been used for several years. Is that enough?

Personally, I choose to embrace the ambiguity here. And most importantly, it feeds our motivations to do this project, the feeling that the power to call something a success needs to rest in the hands of those meant to benefit from these projects.