Another Reason Why Bottom-up Approach Should be the Norm in International Development (By Abdoulaye Zorome)

Posted: August 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

This is the kind of report you are not likely to find in an IMF or World Bank report. It is personal, based on a recent trip to my village to help them build a toilet. Throughout the trip I kept seeing and observing some of the reasons why projects, especially the ones that aim to lift people out of poverty are failing. I do not pretend to be a development expert, but this is just some personal thoughts I will like to share.

Saturday, July 28, 2012, after eating my early breakfast to start fasting for Ramadan at 4:30AM, I headed out to pick up my friends Mohamed (a rural development engineer), and Alidou, (an economist). Off to Ouahigouya, we went. My father’s village is called Sissamba. We arrived in Ouahigouya a little after 8.

Sissamba is one of the 9 villages that constitute the birthplace of Zoromes. My father Amadou (82) was born and raised in Sissamba, located at 7 kilometers outside Ouahigouya, one of the major Burkinabe cities. During a recent conversation we had, my father told me he wanted to go to the village and build them a toilet in the family compound. Whoever knows my dad, knows that he is very dynamic and always working in his farm. Despite all his energy, age is a reality that is catching up on him and he simply doesn’t have the physical capability to travel some 500 kilometers to build a toilet in the household he grew up in. Fortunately, the African culture (and many others) lies on an interesting life cycle that is beautifully captured by this Mossi proverb: donkeys birth so their backs can rest later. In other words, it was a duty for me and any other sibling for that matter to see such a project to completion (ideally).
Many of us did not grow up with strong ties to the villages our parents were born in. In my case, my father moved to Bobo Dioulasso in 1947, where he still lives and that’s the city where all of us were born and raised in. However, my parents insisted that we all go to the village to discover our “fatherland” and were very serious that we all learn Moré, our native language. Consequently, the term hometown to me is Bobo Dioulasso. That doesn’t prevent me from visiting and doing small projects in Sissamba, a place I love.

Long story short, I have been talking to my cousin Salif who lives in Sissamba about coming there and helping build the toilet. My dad was not aware of the project that was in the making. On the way to the village, Mohamed asked me why I did not just send them the money and let them build the toilet (I said I don’t want to repeat the same mistake many Aid Organizations make). Those mistakes consist in sending in money and then somehow believe that is all it takes to achieve miracle. You need to understand the socio-economic dynamics of the beneficiaries. Therefore, I asked Salif and my other relatives in Sissamba to get sand, gravels, and volunteers to do the project. They were important stakeholders.

Once in the village, we realized that we were missing steel. So we went back to Ouahigouya to get the missing materials and some trees. It was great having Mohamed come with me to do the shopping. He previously worked at Plan International, an American NGO and knew exactly what to buy, the quantity of sand, gravels, water, and cement to make a concrete slab. I did not want my relatives in Sissamba to feel they were being forced to have this toilet. Their participation at all the different steps (conceptualization and realization) was very crucial.

My relatives had already dug the well (not to the required standard though, it needs to be deeper. They will dig 2 to 3 additional meters to meet the minimal requirement). Mohamed agreed with the location of the hole (we don’t want human waste polluting water). We all worked together to collect hard stones and more sand and gravels. I was observing how the kids, adults, and all my friends were working as a team in a very complementary way. Mohamed knew for instance what measure of gravels+ sand +cement will get us resistant concrete slab. The mason in turn knew how to dig to get upper top of the well in a square shape. The elder of the group, my cousin and namesake Abdoulaye (he is deaf and you have to scream to his ears to communicate) supervised the work in progress and made very insightful suggestions.
My father’s reaction

Once we made it to village, I called my father and told him that we were in Sissamba to build the toilet. He was very happy and had many blessings for my friends who left their time and families (they were all fasting as well) to help achieve the project.


There are very few mango and lemon trees in Sissamba. Mango trees have amazing shade in addition to their fruits. I decided to get 5 of them and give it to an individual member of the household. There have been many tree planting campaigns in Burkina Faso to fight desertification. Unfortunately, these noble actions have not held to their promises because after the cameras have left, people failed to properly nurture and protect the trees thus leading them to start over and over again during each rainy season. Nowadays, the strategy is to put someone in charge, so each Zorome was given a tree and asked to nurture and protect it. I will be back to see the progress made.


Cement 13000CFA
Steel 11500CFA
Gas 25000CFA
5 trees 5000CFA
Mason 5000CFA
TOTAL 59500CFA ($120)

Note: if this was done by the government, the budget could have been 3 times higher. The good news though is, Water Aid recently launched a campaign to build toilets in all villages at the total price of $120/toilet. This is a project with a great potential. I wished it had come earlier (it is election season) and hope it gets the grassroots adherence.


Since my return home in 2010, I have had the chance through my work and my involvement in various projects outside of work to collaborate with some people on the ground. I am often frustrated by many stereotypes maintained by the “aid community”. I really believe Burkina Faso is NOT POOR; people just need to stop seeing the country with “poor” eyes. As the saying goes here, you can’t wake up someone who is not sleeping. In other words, if we want to keep repeating the same mistakes and top down approaches, we will ineluctably get the same results. Please don’t interpret these words as negating what appears to be obvious: poverty. I just feel like we need to redefine certain concepts and adapt them to local realities. A simple example, you might fill in a survey questionnaire by saying a villager is poor if you are only using “less than a dollar/day” as reference. The same villager might not calculate the food he gets out his barn, the eggs or the other traditional medicine he uses. So maybe if he adds up all these things, he might be way over the one buck per day.

All it takes sometimes is to listen and observe local cultures (there are many sub-cultures here in Burkina Faso and cities and villages are very different on so many regards). My cousin Abdoulaye was the oldest of the group that day. When I asked him if he agreed with Mohamed’s idea on using the stones in a particular way he replied to me using a proverb: when one foot of the same person “collides” with the other foot, it is because of miscommunication. So maybe we need to listen better to the people who we think are the poor, because as my cousin, they might be poor, but smart.

The ministry of national education recently mentioned a project to provide primary school students with tablets. I have nothing against technologies and their use to enhance and ameliorate learning. I have issues with our leaders who still do not understanding or refuse to understand local realities (because there are not asleep, so we can’t wake them). We cannot copy and paste and expect good results. In development there no such a thing like one model fits all. Just open your eyes and go on the ground to meet and discuss the actors, then you will understand that many of the same students will need classrooms with roofs before getting tablets, if not they might get their new toys soaked when it rains because they are attending classes in hatches.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunities I have had so far. I am also grateful for all the amazing friends who lend hands to achieve projects like these. Life takes us in interesting directions and those of us who have been lucky should never forget where we came from and we should remember it along the way. May peace be with you.

Please feel free to share with me your thoughts.
To view pictures of the project, please click this link:

  1. karissa says:

    Reblogged this on KSam* Says… and commented:
    Rethinking Africa.

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