Posted by Joe Smith
07/05/2014

accidental-projects--el-najo-road

In 2009 Nuevas Esperanzas wrote a five-year plan with a shopping list of potential projects. Many of these have been completed, some are underway, and others are no longer necessary. Then there are a few other projects that do not appear on this list, but that have been carried out anyway. These are the accidental projects.

Since 2011 Nuevas Esperanzas’ accidental projects have improved access to one hillside community, brought piped water to 24 families, and protected a spring to give a community of over 250 people a new reliable source of water. None of these appear on the master plan.

But does swaying from this plan demean the act of writing it in the first place? In many sectors, this would be seen as almost cavalier. Arguably this is even more the case in the charity sector where many projects are funded by grants which are awarded only after a laborious application process. When a quick decision is made, and there is no time to wait for the normal funding cycle to come around, we have to dig into our general funds. Essentially, such accidental projects deny themselves the opportunity of being funded and instead gouge a great hole in the balance sheet. You can see the Treasurer shaking his head.

But the fact that they do not appear within the master plan is part of the beauty of these projects. Normally they come about because there is a small window of opportunity that, if ignored, will close. We improved access to El Caracol accidentally in order to transport materials for a different project. Had we not done it then, we might never have done it. We protected a second spring in Agua Fría accidentally when the first spring’s yield unexpectedly dropped. Had we not done it then, we might have witnessed a full-blown water crisis.

What is surprising is just how much these accidental projects can achieve, and with what ease. Unlike a traditional project which involves months of planning, proposal writing and delivery, many accidental projects unfold effortlessly. It is hard to say why, but their very spontaneity seems to play a key part. When I asked Nuevas Esperanzas’ Director, Andrew Longley, about this he suspected that the spontaneity spurs people on to think that they are seizing an opportunity. This ensures high levels of community participation and enthusiasm.

This was certainly the case with the community of El Caracol when we discovered that their water needs could be met by a pipeline we were building to carry water to two other communities below. If we had not acted quickly, the moment would have gone and it would have been impossible to build the infrastructure afterwards.

It took months to organise and cajole the two communities the water was initially intended for into digging the trenches needed for their pipes. In comparison, people from the smaller and more disperse community of El Caracol were actually too hasty in digging their 2km of trenches which ended up being refilled by the rains. They were more than happy to dig them again.

You could argue that these accidental projects should have been part of the master plan from the outset. But often you only realise the potential once you have taken that first step. Once you achieve the improbable, you start to realise that the impossible is feasible too. Because of the uncertainties involved in achieving the improbable, you cannot begin to extrapolate any further.

Having a master plan is by no means a bad thing. But as our Director, Andrew Longley, said “part of our strategy is also not to be too strategic!” If we want to be genuinely participatory, we have to respond to opportunities as they arise and we can never plan everything up front.

The problem is with funding. As most projects within the master plan are charged directly to large grants, accidental projects cannot always be funded. With a more significant cushion of unrestricted income from regular donations we would be freer to do this kind of work.