Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Project That Couldn't Have Gone Much Worse

Over a year ago I started talking with a local government official (Mohamed) about potential projects in the region. He mentioned that I should look into a running water project in a nearby village (Mountainville). He said that there was a good association to work with and that the project would be relatively simple. I went out with Mohamed to Mountainville to meet Brahim, the president of the association. We talked about the project and it seemed feasible, although very expensive. The kicker was the a local political figure, with access to money (Haddu) was interested in helping financing the project for political reasons.

Later, Mohamed, Brahim, a technician from the commune, and I went out to the spring near Mountainville to do an estimate on the project. The technician's estimate came out very expensive: 320,000 Dh ($40,000). This seemed to be way more than I could possibly pull together (maximum PC grant to volunteers is $3,500). But then myself and Haddu had a conversation and he thought he could put forward $33,500. SO I wrote a grant, begged my parents for money, and scrapped together some other money.

The grant money came in early April. Haddu wanted to get the project started before elections in June, so I I thought the project would be hurried along. Instead, everyone I was working with started. We finally put the money in a special bank account, allowing for it to be accessed after a public bidding between contractors. But they kept delaying. I went to America for vacation, the elections happened, which removed any political motivation for Haddu to work on the project.

However, everyone kept acting like the project was moving forward. I finally figured out that they were lying to me, so I tried to retrieve the money from the account. I found out that I could not withdraw the money without the presence of Haddu or Brahim. I went and talked to them and they told me that, due to some bureaucratic paperwork, they couldn't access the money now. Mohamed confirmed this with me and told me to be patient (this is in June). So I waited.

After a couple months, PC started getting impatient, so I had them call Haddu. After talking with Haddu, PC told me I would have to wait a little while longer. More time passed. Haddu moved to a different city. Everytime I called him, he told me that the problem was almost fixed. I went to the biggest authority in Tounfite and had him call Haddu. They told me the problem was almost taken care of. I was a little worried that the association was trying to steal the money, but it seemed unlikely because it would be very easy to send them to jail if they did.

PC eventually got fed up and told me to threaten Haddu and Brahim with the police. That got them moving. We met in Tounfite on Monday at the Ministry of Interior to sort out paperwork. My understanding was that we would be able to go to the bank that day to get the money, but it turned out some papers still had to be sent to Midelt for processing. 7.5 months after I told them to get the money, and they still hadn't finished the paperwork. They said that on Thursday we would talk again and figure out a time to go to the bank together to pick up the money.

Instead, on Thursday they called to say they had the money and were coming to Tounfite. When we met up, they were very unhappy with me. I had told the Ministry of Interior that PC thought they were thieves. I had called them out to the most important people in Tounfite and they weren't happy about it. I let them know just how unhappy I was with them and that all of their problems were of their own making. We were having this conversation in a cramped pickup truck. I have never in my life experienced such open hatred between myself and another person. We finally got around to counting the money. There was suppossed to be 52,240 DHs, but there was only 50,000. I got a little angrier. They said the money had "tarwwla" (it escaped). I asked what that meant. They said I had to pay them for all the hassle and transportation costs. Even though I thought it was absurd that I would pay for their transportation costs in order to fix a problem that they had caused by their own stupid decisions, I was prepared to give them some money. But I was thinking 200 Dhs, not 2,000. They told me that if I didn't give them their cut, then I wouldn't get any money and I'd have to go to the police.

So we started going through their expenses line by line. Each expense the got bolder about inflating the cost. Nonetheless, I knocked over 1,000 Dhs off the price that they had estimated, which they gave back to me. 51,000 of 52,240 Dhs recovered. I hated being ripped off for 1,200 Dhs, but it gave me some clarity: I was right to call them thieves.

I made some mistakes, most of them typical development mistakes. First, I got myself involved in politics, supporting a politician who I later discovered to be corrupt. Second, I later learned that the town had a well, but that the men were too cheap to pay the electricity for the pump. If I community values water that little, I shouldn't push it. Finally, I was operating in a system that I didn't understand with people that I didn't know very well.

The most disappointing part of the project is that it didn't go through: it would have brought running water to 800 people. Although the men aren't willing to pay for it, it's the women who would have benefited (they're the ones that collect water).

If this were my only project, it would have been a major disappointment. Luckily, I've got other projects that are going well. This project has turned me off of infrastructure projects and made me favor knowledge based/training projects.

All is well...take care.


Anonymous said...

That's a sad story really. Endemic corruption is really discouraging in Morocco. I wish you well for your other projects. Keep up the good work and never give up Duncan!

mary ellen newport said...

Another way of looking at the projects that have been successful is that they've involved women, who are highly motivated, less powerful & have fewer resources. Fascinating look at political reality on the ground.

tagalong said...

Wish the men responsible would carry the water themselves like women do for a year or so. The price of electricity for the pump would seem cheap compared to their labor.