Archive for July, 2008

It is perplexing to think that in all my time spent in development-focused courses, taken in Sweden, Chile and California in an attempt to derive some comparison, I found repeated emphasis on theories and inflated economic prowess without ever understanding how exactly things get done. Implementation. And yet one week into my internship in India I came to understand the decisive weight of bottom-up community solutions in generating sustainable development. Unlike a mere paragraph in a greater text, the approach is an indispensable element of grassroots projects such as those implemented by my host organization, the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation.

The idea is simple: support the formation of community-based water forums to manage water resources and contribute some, although not all, of the funds required to bring their visions to fruition. We forget that people want to help themselves but lack the proper incentives and that, unless they do help themselves, solutions will likely be inconsistent with needs. For these communities, the answer lies in the construction and repair of traditional rainwater harvesting structures to increase their capacity to collect and store water. It is captivating to consider that in many cases solutions already exist, and that they simply need to be re-embraced and relieved of the social, political and economic mentalities that initially betrayed them.

I am now about halfway through my 3 month (minimum) internship in India. When it comes down to it I have come to India to find out where all the effort goes. I want to know why development is so elusive. Two weeks ago I was surprised to find that my host organization was willing to charge me with the responsibility of writing the funding proposals on which their entire resource base for future projects depends. But I am passionate about research, and for the required assignment I was handed essentially all of the internal documents of the organization. What is less apparent is the fact that just as fascinating to me as the content of these documents is the system by which they have been generated and maintained. I am eager to understand how and how quickly information passes through the organization, what is included and what is left out. I have gained a tacit understanding of elements in the great theme of Implementation that are both general and unique to the present environment, and I feel that I have begun identifying the issues that will shape my future involvement in development policy.

I am truly grateful to be here. I know it is right because I still cannot see it happening any other way. I cannot imagine continuing my education without understanding it all more deeply. Yet I do not feel that this is an easy ride in either a personal or professional sense. The India Times just informed me that Goa’s HIV positive patients are purposefully deteriorating their health to go on a treatment that will then entitle them to 1000 rupees per month from the government… which amounts to less than one dollar per day. My 27-year-old Indian host sister recently asked me if France was in the US. And my supervisor at work re-defined the English definition of “objectives” and asked for a re-submission of my proposal. It has struck me that India only recently achieved independence and yet is grappling with all of the most wayward epidemics of modernity on an unprecedented scale. And sometimes I can’t resist getting lost in the thought of just how big this country, this world and this problem is.

All I know is that at the end of the day I am not here because of the impossibilities and the illusions. I cannot maintain that we are all drowning when people who have known despair are re-defining faith and leading meaningful change in regions like Marwar that the world never has to think of. And I cannot make the choice not to follow them.

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For the past 5 weeks I have been working at Centro Integral Warmi, a small non-profit community center in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia. In addition to running a day-care center and a library, Warmi operates a soap factory that employs ten mothers in the community. The women take turns cooking, taking care of the kids, and working in the Centro Productivo. In the Centro Productivo, I had the chance to work with them as they ripped animal fat to be cooked in a giant, fairytale pot, broke hard casts of soap into smaller pieces, and dumped the pieces into two machines that churned out soap in thick, spaghetti-like strings. The women work hard but enjoy it as they chat and joke with each other. As one woman said, “Como hermanas trabajamos,” or “We work like sisters.” The stories of these women are both rich and moving, and I felt like the customers should know more about what buying Warmi soap means to these women.

I had the opportunity to interview the 5 women who have been here for a long time, some since the organization began in 1982. I asked some questions about their families, their personal stories, and what they like about the work and about Warmi, but mostly I just let the conversations flow. Hunched over a little Sony tape recorder in the library filled with chattering kids, I listened to the recorded conversations and typed up the testimonies. With these testimonies I will help create a brochure exclusively about the women and the story of the Centro Productivo to be included when the soap is sold. The power of a story is transformative, and ultimately, the most sustainable development is one that transforms lives through the heart.

Although the salaries are fairly minimal, the women continue to work here because of their kids. They want their kids to eat and grow up in an environment that fosters educational and personal growth. One thing I heard over and over again was, “Por mis wawas he entrado,” or “I came because of my kids.” Before Warmi, many of these women sold meat, worked in agricultural fields, or washed clothes. Warmi has been like a foundation for them, a second home, where they know their kids are safe, nearby, and receiving physical, emotional, and intellectual nourishment. They have become active community members. I hope that, with the creation of this brochure about their stories, Warmi can sell more soap to a wider range of people who appreciate and are inspired by the empowerment stories of these women. These señoras exemplify what the power and solidarity of “warmi,” which means “women” in Quechua, can accomplish together.

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People always talk about “making a difference.” It’s a catchy phrase to use, “Make a difference, call your Senator” or “Make a difference, recycle your bottle.” Personally, I find it a phrase that is all too easy to say and much, much harder to do. But then today it suddenly hit me that I might actually make a tangible difference in people’s lives.

Okay, so a little background. Community Action for Rural Development (CARD) the organization I am interning for, focuses on sustainable development in Western Kenya. My first day at work, Felix, my supervisor, told me that CARD is looking into starting a biogas project. He told me that they saw biogas as a means to decrease pressure on the Kakamega Forest and to improve the livelihoods of the communities that live there. Many members of the community rely on the forest as a source of wood fuel for cooking and lighting. Not only is this activity rapidly degrading Kenya’s only remaining rainforest, it is also wrecking havoc on the quality of life for the people that rely on wood fuel. In many families, the women will leave their houses as early as 4 a.m. to go to the forest. Once they get there, they have to contend with poisonous snakes and spiders, malaria carrying mosquitoes, arrest and even, as one woman told us when we visited, rape. Once they get the wood, some spend all day carrying it in heavy loads on top of their heads. The tragedy doesn’t end there; the smoke from using wood fuel to cook has lead to chronic chest pain and other respiratory problems for many of the women.

All of these problems could be fixed if CARD was able to train community members on how to make biogas. From hours of research on the internet I’ve learned that biogas is naturally produced from decaying organic matter such as manure or vegetable waste. It can be harnessed for cooking/lighting through the amazingly simple construction of an anaerobic digester. It’s currently been done all over the developing world, there have been 3,000 digesters constructed in India alone in the past couple of years. My research gave me hope that this is something that could actually happen.

Then today, I went visit the forest communities, I realized that it is something that has to happen. I saw women, and even children, carrying impossibly heavy loads of tree branches. My colleague Alfred and I had made a survey to determine the need and interest in biogas. What we found was astounding; everyone wanted it and their reasons for their need (such as getting raped or skyrocketing fuel prices that use up what little money they have) took us aback. A few of those we spoke with knew about anaerobic digesters and said they wanted one but couldn’t afford it.

So here’s where CARD and I come in. Tomorrow we will begin writing a grant proposal. In it, we are asking for funding to set up a demonstration anaerobic digester in one of the schools that we visited near the forest that has two cows. A part of the money is to go towards training CARD staff on how to construct an inexpensive and practical digester. The idea is that once we are trained on how to make the digester and we assist in the construction of the digester at the school, we can then hold a community wide workshop on how to construct digesters.

It was an amazing sight to see the hope in some of the eyes of the women when we told them that we might have an inexpensive solution to their problems. As Alfred said, “if we can do this, we will change lives.”

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During the lunch hour the children at Camp David Centre exit their classrooms, while more come in through the gates to eagerly wait in line for a well-prepared meal. Laughter and playful banter echo, and the childish excitement that permeates makes it difficult to believe that many of these children are living in conditions of extreme poverty. This meal is only part of the school sponsorship that Camp David Centre provides to the needy children of the community. In addition to this nutritious lunch, the centre also provides sponsored children with free health care at its clinic, funds for school fees, uniforms and books, and access to education.

Camp David Centre is an NGO based in Changamwe, Kenya just outside of the city of Mombasa that currently helps sponsor almost 500 students throughout the community. Sponsorship is the main program that the centre runs, but it also hosts a range of other programs such as its own primary school, dispensary, computer training classes, sewing classes, community support group and, hopefully soon, a small library. And yet, with all the people that the centre is helping, it still tries to do more.

I have been working at the centre for four weeks now, and have gotten involved with the development of a new feeding project. As the social workers of Camp David Centre have conducted surveys throughout regions of Mombasa, we have identified four slum areas greatly in need of help. In these areas many vulnerable children have limited, if any, access to proper nutrition and education. Through the construction and organization of a feeding center in each of these areas, we hope to provide a proper meal for school-aged children. Nutrition is the foundation for adequate development, and eventually we hope to have the centre grow into much needed nursery school. Moroto is the area where we hope to pilot the program, and currently we are trying to raise funds for the renovation of a building to host the feeding centre. This center will be a strong foundation that will enable the program to develop to address other needs of the community and sustain itself.

I have been lucky to be involved with a program as it truly begins. Watching the research, surveys, involvement of the community and passion of those working to implement the project has shown me that change here is possible. I’ve been learning about how an NGO in a developing country functions on a day-to-day basis. Although very frustrating and slow at times waiting for donors to come through, the internet to load and the power to return, it seems as though change here is possible. Just being here in Mombasa has really given me an idea of some of the problems a developing country faces and has forced me to think about and find possible solutions.

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Most children in Mombasa, Kenya take advantage of free primary education, enjoy playing football in sandy parks, and have ambitions of being a doctor, lawyer, or business leader. But during my time working for a local NGO, Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI), I have found many “street kids” who face the realities of the legal system after being unjustly charged with ‘loitering’ or falsely accused of stealing. Unfortunately, the justice system in Kenya lacks an institution to handle juvenile cases, so organizations like MUHURI are stepping in to direct children out of adult prisons during the trial process and provide them with legal assistance.

A Remand Home for Children was recently constructed just outside of Mombasa city, helping to house youth under 16 for the duration of their trials. Situated on a sand lot less than ½ an acre, it consists only of 2 large cinder-block buildings and 2 more under slow construction – an atmosphere that lacks the hope or encouragement necessary to motivate troubled children. After speaking with the Home manager and learning of MUHURI’s work, it is not difficult to understand the challenges of finding volunteer teachers to instruct 65 remanded kids or provide beneficial activities without proper facilities. In order to ensure time in the Remand Home is constructive and used to jumpstart their return into the community, I have constructed a project to renovate the ‘dining hall’ into a multi-functional room, complete with a chalkboard, removable tables, and shelving for storage of art supplies and school materials for youth.

My first visit to the home was shortly after MUHURI provided paper and pencils for kids to draw with, and I have never seen young people so excited to show off their artistic skill: I was overwhelmed with great sketches and pictures about the prevention of AIDS or saying no to drugs. Not only did this small contribution provide hours of entertainment, but also gave distressed teens a creative outlet for frustrations with challenges in their lives. It is our hope that involving these bright, talented youth in reconstructing the dining hall, offering them the chance to draw murals and help repaint the facility, we can offer something more than a physical structure for gathering: we want this space to provide the type of motivation, education, and information (through Human Rights Workshop) that the children of Mombasa need to reintegrate into the community.

After the project is complete, we will work to secure regular visitors – leaders from the surrounding area – to come speak and support the remand children through their trials. Interviews with the youth show that one of the most encouraging aspects of their week comes with representatives of MUHURI walk through the gate, staying to talk about the conditions of their stay or status of their trials. Bringing teachers, aid workers, or successful community members into the lives of these enthusiastic, but misguided, children is the best remedy to a history of bad experiences. With the addition of books and other school supplies, the renovations of the dining hall will also facilitate a peer-educational atmosphere where kids can help one another with studies, ensuring they do not fall behind in school. Experience tells us that such proactive approaches will help stop the cycle of repeat offenders that often plague Kenyan youth.

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