This looks like a perfectly good bicycle ambulance, albeit an older model with a quarter canopy (we have since switched to a full canopy). It seems to have all its parts. It looks to be in working condition. Fantastic, right?

Hmm… let’s hold on a second before we jump to any conclusions. This photo has captured an end result, but has failed to capture the events leading up to such result.

When I asked the staff at the rural Chanyanya clinic (south of Lusaka) if I could see the bicycle ambulance they received in 2007, they asked me to wait for a bit. And so I waited. Nearly 10 minutes past, and I didn’t feel like waiting any longer. So I got up and went outside.

During those 10 minutes, the staff had opened their store room, located all the parts, pulled them outside, dusted them off, and reassembled them. I arrived just before they finished.

Turns out that the tires are flat and warped, and the ambulance hasn’t been used for a few months. But they wanted to make the situation seem more positive (possibly in hopes of getting a new one donated), so I was asked to wait inside while they painted a prettier picture.

This happens all the time. A visitor arrives, and all of a sudden broken technologies are reassembled, unused technologies are used, and people gather. The visitor goes home thinking that things are in a much better condition than they actually are. Some call this the “observer effect.”

Owen, who is an EWB volunteer in Malawi, has captured the observer effect in a fantastic photo series in one of his posts on Playpumps. He hung around long enough to see more of the reality.

Unfortunately, most observers never get to that point. Instead, they take a picture that hides the reality, and they go home happy. They will then show that photo to friends or potential donors or fellow development workers, and no one will know that there was something wrong with that picture.