The $1,000 latrines that cost $40,000

We’ve just been listening (via Audible) to Rory Stewart’s excellent book Politics On the Edge and came across a story that highlights some of the profound ignorance that exists in the world of International Development and Humanitarian Aid.

For those of you who don’t know, Rory Stewart was once the acceptable face of British conservative politics, but arguably achieved more with his dedicated humanitarian efforts, especially in post conflict regions. He’s an academic, former British MP, diplomat, author, broadcaster and once served in the British armed forces. 

He is currently president of GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that focuses on direct cash transfers to individuals and families living in extreme poverty in developing countries. 

In his book Stewart describes an incident in Africa while working as a minister in the British Foreign Office and the Department for International Development:

“In Africa, where the poverty was most entrenched, many of our projects seemed grotesquely ineffective. The water and sanitation programme which was supposed to encourage girls to attend school during their menstrual cycle sounded impressive in the briefing in London. But arriving in rural Zambia I found four white UN branded land cruises and a group of international engineers who explained that the $40,000 we had allocated for the project had paid for two latrines at a cost of perhaps $1000, and five red plastic buckets. 

“This, I was told, was an example of appropriate technology. ‘No need for maintaining pipes, Minister,’ said a UN engineer who was implementing the project on our behalf. ‘The students can fill the buckets at the well.’ 

“I asked: ‘But why don’t we just give a 20th of this amount to the teacher and ask him to buy the latrines and the buckets?’ The engineer replied he might have stolen the money. I restrained myself from suggesting the UN had stolen the money.”

For more on Rory Stewart’s book, see:

For information on Give Directly, go to:

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