September 7, 2011
Sustainability and community empowerment are of utmost importance to the Voss Foundation; every single one of our projects aims to make sure our beneficiaries can take ownership of and maintain their own wells and water systems after implementation is complete.
One way we achieve this is by encouraging villages to enact a very small water levy. Taxing disadvantaged community members may seem uncharitable at first glance, but in fact it helps them save up money for maintenance and repairs in the future. Our implementation of the well or water system doesn’t cost the village anything (actually, it boosts the economy when we pay the local workers) and most of our partnerships cover follow-up maintenance for a certain period of time after the project is complete.
Our hope in advocating for a nominal self-governed fee system is that the community can save up those small amounts of money during the period when we’re implementing and helping to maintain the project. If the village can do that, then they will have funds saved up in order to handle maintenance themselves once we hand the well or water system over to the community!
We never dictate the amount of the tax, and it’s not always determined to be an appropriate ingredient in sustainability in every case but, whenever possible, we do urge the local water management committees (that we work with the communities to choose and train in all of our projects) to institute a system whereby they can save money for when they need it.
On our trip last month to visit our Kenya partners, we learned how the Samburu water taxation works:
In the Samburu villages where we have built solar water systems, the local water management committees charge a rate of 1 shilling (KSH) per gallon. This is done on a credit basis, however; the villagers don’t pay cash, the watchmen and water committee members keep a careful accounting of individual and family usage. The accounts are kept in a sort of debt system, so if the project ever needs repairs, the water managers can claim the debts for the cost of the repair.
A particularly interesting component of this whole credit-based financial system is that the Samburu people don’t use cash! They operate on barter and trade mostly livestock (goats, donkeys, cattle, and camels). So when they need cash, they must travel several days to sell their livestock at a market where they will receive shillings in return, and then use that money to purchase whatever it is they need.
In the case of the water tax code, the water managers would, for example, collect a camel from the family that uses the most water, and perhaps a cow or goat or two from other families who have also “spent” that value in water usage, and then bring those animals to market to get the KSH needed to repair the water system.
We were fascinated to learn about this very advanced method of bookkeeping, and even more so to learn that credit is the standard modus operandi of the Samburu economy! Apparently an old Samburu proverb says:
If you don’t have debt, you don’t have friends
All in all, a fascinating lesson in Samburu accounting, don’t you think?