09/11/2012 12:24 EDT | Updated 11/11/2012 05:12 EST

If You Build it, They Will Come -- But Building's Not Enough

Women sit with their newborn babies in a ward of the Lagos Island Maternity Hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. Amid the millions of births and deaths around the world each day, it is impossible to pinpoint the arrival of the globe's 7 billionth occupant. But the U.N. chose Monday to mark the day with a string of festivities worldwide, and a series of symbolic 7-billionth babies being born. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country with more than 160 million people. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

In the film Field of Dreams (based on the W.P. Kinsella book, Shoeless Joe) a ghostly voice tells an Iowa farmer to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield, saying, "If you build it, he will come."

We suspect that voice still echoes, whispering in the ears of some philanthropists, government and aid organizations, leaving derelict and decaying development projects and wasted aid money scattered across the world's impoverished communities like monuments to good intentions gone wrong.

One community health centre we recently stumbled upon appears like an elegant mirage on Kenya's open savannah. Cheerful yellow trim and decorative red brick surround the ornate white gates that lead into the courtyard of the U-shaped building.

The layout is practical and functional, with rooms for everything a rural clinic needs: a general waiting room, a triage area, doctors' offices, a small lab, a pharmacy and laundry facilities. The clinic has its own well and a septic system for the washrooms.

There are just a few minor details the clinic is lacking -- like doctors and nurses.

A hospital bed and a few racks of surgical equipment gather dust in the corner of one room. Aside from those, the building has sat empty for two years. The health centre was built by the charitable foundation of a multinational corporation that works throughout East Africa. With an interest in the health sector, the foundation proposed to build the clinic to serve impoverished communities in the Narok South district of southern Kenya.

No expense was spared on the construction, drilling a new private well and even running a power line all the way across the savannah to connect with the national grid. The overall price tag was more than one million dollars.

Construction was completed in October 2010, and the community was invited to a grand opening ceremony. It's not exactly clear what everyone thought would happen after that.

Desperate to have the health centre built, the community made promises to manage the facility, attracting and employing medical staff. The foundation, eager to do good, naively took them at their word. But any reasonable amount of community consultation and engagement would have quickly shown that, without further support and training, the community had no capacity to fulfill those promises.

Since 2010, the community has employed two men to maintain the grounds and a third as a night watchman to guard the property. They pay the bills to keep the power on, all in the hope that someone, some day, will step in and get the health centre up and running. Sadly, the ill-fated story of this health centre is not unique.

Just 12 kilometres away is another abandoned health project, this one begun by the Kenyan government prior to the 2002 national election. Seeing the need for better health services in rural areas -- and an opportunity to score some votes in the impending election -- the government began work on a small health centre. Some $12,000 was spent to construct half a room. The election came and went and then the government walked away. With no community involvement in the process, there was no one to see the work completed.

Now take a two-hour walk from this unfinished clinic and you'll come upon the mouldering remains of a well. The borehole was drilled by an Irish aid organization that didn't bother to involve the local community in its water project. No locals were trained to manage or maintain the well. First, the pump ran out of diesel. Then, it broke down from disuse. Now it's just a sad landmark. For the record, drilling a borehole in this region costs more than $100,000.

That's three dud development projects all within a 100-kilometre radius. We've seen many more around the world in our travels. They are the product of the Field of Dreams Syndrome: the naïve belief that if you build a hospital, school or well, somehow, magically, doctors and teachers and maintenance workers will just appear to make the project a success.

Long before the first brick of a school or clinic is laid, one must work closely with the community to fill in the gaps: Where will the teachers and doctors come from? How will the community finance the facility in the long term? Do community members have the skills to handle ongoing maintenance?

If you're looking to support a development project, it's fair to ask the organization: how are you preparing and supporting the community to keep that project going once you're gone?

If we don't empower communities to manage projects independently, we might as well throw our money down the well we just drilled. It's more cruel to promise a better life and not deliver than to never offer aid at all.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit