Finally, I remember thinking, this is it. This is development happening the right way. I was in a meeting of the Water & Sanitation Committee of Wantugu, the village of 5,000 or so people in northern Ghana where I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was in the latter half of 2007 — I can’t remember more specifically than that, and apparently had given upon keeping a journal — and up until that point, the WatSan Committee had been meeting semi-regularly to discuss Guinea worm and their new water system. But with Guinea worm cases finally at a low, I tried to cheerlead them. “Look how well we did with Guinea worm! Think about what else we could do…”

So when a community elder rose and said, “I’ve seen that other villages have household latrines, and I think Wantugu should too,” it seemed all too perfect. Development projects, I knew, were supposed to come from the community — so who better than from an elder, a representative, a leader? As the rest of the Committee muttered and nodded in agreement, I grew excited to get started.

I took the idea to The Carter Center, as I knew they were building latrines in the area as part of their initiative to fight trachoma. They agreed right away to help — all they needed was a list of each household who, if given the construction materials, would build their own latrine. The WatSan Committee went to each household in Wantugu to ask them and not a single one turned us down.

Unused concrete slabs, meant to be the base of latrines, Wantugu, Northern Region, Ghana. Installed in 2008, photographed in 2013-2014.
Unused concrete slabs, meant to be the base of latrines, Wantugu, Northern Region, Ghana. Installed in 2008, photographed in 2013-2014. Photograph: Peter DiCampo
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Wantugu’s Latrines. GIF: Peter DiCampo

In early 2008, over the course of the next dry season, material began to arrive in trucks and was stored in an unused closet in my teacher’s quarters style housing — bags of cement, plastic ventilation pipes, and wire netting to go over the pipes and keep flies from getting in. Masons came from Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region, and shaped the concrete into slabs to form the base of each latrine, one outside each family compound, dotting the village. I ran around all day offering encouragement and, with the help of a couple of young, local volunteers, kept a checklist of our progress. Has this household received a concrete base? Check. Have they dug a hole? Check. Have they built a mud-brick room over it? Here, the checks came slower. As the rainy season quickly approached — making building with mudbricks impossible, and marking the start of the busy farming season — I knew I couldn’t see this project through.

In the end, only a handful of households completed their latrine. In my final site evaluation leaving Peace Corps, I wrote, “The system is in place for them to continue working with Carter Center on latrines, and they are determined to take the initiative and do so.” But, years later, wandering through Wantugu on a return visit, I saw that every home has an unused concrete slab lying outside, with two footholds and a hole — they now lie useless, some of them propping up firewood, most of them crumbling. Not one house followed through on their agreement to complete the construction after I left.

An overturned concrete slab, meant to be the base of a latrine, Wantugu, Northern Region, Ghana. 2014.
An overturned concrete slab, meant to be the base of a latrine, Wantugu, Northern Region, Ghana. 2014. Photograph: Peter DiCampo
Remains of concrete slab, meant to be the base of a latrine, Wantugu, Northern Region, Ghana. 2014.
Remains of concrete latrine base, Wantugu. 2014. Photograph: Peter DiCampo

What went wrong in Wantugu? One reason may be that the dry season is also the building season. It is the time of year when people fix the cracks in their homes that appeared during the last rainy season, or add rooms to their compounds because someone has married and the family is expanding, or build new food storage rooms, or one of many other small projects that add up. For a community that has been defecating in the bush for endless generations, fixing a problem they never saw themselves as having was low on the priority list.

Five years after I left the Peace Corps, I finally began using my photography as a tool to interrogate the complicated aid system and its many ins and outs: the naiveté I had and have seen many times in other projects, the desire to “do good” however ill-defined, the local willingness to accept seemingly anything that is offered. I have been photographing the objects and structures left behind when foreign aid fails, starting with my own Wantugu latrine project before branching out to other parts of Ghana (and now other parts of subsaharan Africa). Gleaming tractors abandoned in fields; libraries with American books in villages where no one speaks English; roofless, half-built schools slowly being washed away by the rain — it is shockingly easy to find the remains of these shortsighted attempts at development. I began to wonder: How does it feel to walk by these structures each day? What expectations are created between donor and aid recipient? And what does it mean for these to be the sole points of contact between two cultures?

Photographer Peter DiCampo in 2006, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, talks to his local work counterpoint Abukari Memunatu about their latrine project in Wantugu, Ghana.
Photographer Peter DiCampo in 2006, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, talks to his local work counterpoint Abukari Memunatu about their latrine project in Wantugu, Ghana. Photograph: Peter DiCampo

In each location I photographed, I asked local people, the would-be beneficiaries of these projects, why the project failed. I knew their opinions and experiences would teach me more than the NGO report that most likely accompanied the project. Their answers varied, but one thing was always the same: each interview ended with them asking for my help. Me, a photographer, an individual, unaffiliated with any aid organization; I was a foreigner visiting their community, and as “helping” is the only reason foreigners usually visit them, this was their only prerequisite. (In Chirifoyili, another village in northern Ghana, one man went as far asto compare the situation to Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, in which the protagonist hangs himself, and the community asks white foreigners to bring him down. Only a white man could help them solve their problems, he said, asking me to “unhang Okonko”). Even when foreign aid has failed people, they often asked for it again. This is the dangerous result of misperception, the legacy of aid that we must confront and work to reverse.

The next stage of my project —“What Went Wrong? Perspectives on Failed Aid”— will compile the case studies I have been gathering on an interactive website, where the audience can hear firsthand accounts of aid projects that are incomplete, dilapidated, unused, or, at times, even unwanted. Most importantly, the site will elevate the voices of aid recipients — to better understand their needs, and their disappointments. Local Africans will be able to submit, via text message and social media, their own stories of failed foreign aid where they live.

A photo from Adam Yakubu, former Assemblyman of Wantugu, Ghana, from childhood with one of his younger brothers.
A photo from Adam Yakubu, former Assemblyman of Wantugu, Ghana, from childhood with one of his younger brothers. Photograph: Peter DiCampo
A photo from Adam Yakubu, former Assemblyman of Wantugu, Ghana, at home in Wantugu.
A photo from Adam Yakubu, at home. Photograph: Peter DiCampo
A photo from Adam Yakubu, former Assemblyman of Wantugu, Ghana, from his first day on the job in 2004.
A photo from Adam Yakubu, from his first day on the job in 2004. Photograph: Peter DiCampo

Meanwhile, back in Wantugu, I put my questions to Adam Yakubu, Wantugu’s former Assemblyman and a friend who worked closely with meon the latrine project. Why did everyone agree to build a latrine if they never planned to follow through? For him, the answer was as simple asit was obvious: “They won’t use it.They will only accept it because others have accepted it.”

A photo from Adam Yakubu, former Assemblyman of Wantugu, Ghana, at university.
A photo from Adam Yakubu, at university. Photograph: Peter DiCampo
A photo from Adam Yakubu, former Assemblyman of Wantugu, Ghana, with other teachers and students at Wantugu Primary School. Mr. Yakubu is the teacher in the back right.
A photo from Adam Yakubu, with other teachers and students at Wantugu Primary School. Mr. Yakubu is the teacher in the back right. Photograph: Peter DiCampo