Monday, May 25, 2009

Philosophies in Development

Rwanda is an amazingly beautiful country; words simply can't do it justice. Hills and valleys span every corner of the country from border to border, filled from top to bottom with terraced farms. 98% of the country is cultivated to support the densest population in Africa.

It also has a culture different from many others in Africa. When Rwandan leadership decides to do something, the population generally goes along with it. So when the current president, Paul Kagame, decided to move full-speed with development after the genocide, Rwanda moved into high gear. With money pouring in from the West, a lot has been done. Roads are paved and medians are filled with streetlights and flowers. Buses leave on time, roads have irrigation ditches and the terraced farms have steep gutters to channel water, thereby preventing erosion.

The safe environment is created by the huge international presence and the strong central government. Into this safety have come some entrepreneurs from the West, looking to do good and make some money. I met two on my way back to Uganda from Goma, and it got me thinking about the relative success of different approaches to development.

There are of course many, many approaches, and I can't hope to compare and contrast all of them. But there are two I'm thinking of now, and wondering - which is more successful? The first is what I'd call the current development orthodoxy. Let's call it "micro-enterprise." Essentially, this approach states that development best occurs when it's bottom driven by many small entrepreneurs. When they develop successful small businesses, their purchasing power is increased. They then spend their earnings in the growing economy, spurred by other micro-enterprises. In this way the entire society is lifted to a higher standard of living. This process is driven and guided by the people themselves, with little outside influence (perhaps only seed funding through micro-financing).

The second approach is more top-down in nature. The national government, an NGO, or the "international community" decides that a certain project is worth pursuing, and then mobilizes the resources to do so. There is less input from the affected people themselves (not necessarily no input, just less). Examples of this would include the two Americans I met in Kigali; both are working in partnership with the government. The first is developing a company to sell bio-digester systems to schools, and the second is selling solar systems. Both of these pursuits require more initial investment than is possible with micro-enterprise. They are implemented by the government and not by individuals. Lastly, their impact is communal rather than individual.

And that I think points to the answer - these approaches work best in tandem, one supporting the other. The local "context" will determine which is more appropriate, and which is more successful. And in reality, it's not appropriate to pit one approach versus the other - they are not mutually exclusive, and one improves the chances of success for the other. So why did I ask this question if now I state it's very premise is incorrect? Well, that question is what I've often asked myself, and the point of view I think many people have. Successful development depends on complex relationships, and unfortunately there's no simple solution.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Chukudus are awesome

What makes a certain technology popular in one place, and yet non-existent in another? We see this a lot in high technology - for example, when crazy advanced devices take off in Japan, but fail to have any success in the US.

I thought about this after seeing my first Chukudu in Goma:

Pronounced choo-ka-dook, these clever devices are all over the place in Goma. Essentially, they're home-made bicycles designed to carry heavy loads. Men use them all over the city for carrying lumber, cement, potatoes, and other heavy items. They're made mostly from wood, but do contain a small amount of modern material such as rubber and a spring.

The chukudus are a vest improvement over the standard bicycle, which is also common for carrying loads in Uganda and eastern Congo. The bikes don't have as much room for materials, they can be expensive, and they don't stay balanced very well.

So if they're such an improvement, why are they so common in Goma, yet non-existent in Uganda? It seems like they would be much more useful than the bikes used in Uganda. Is there less wood? Are people embarrassed by the DIY look? Is it just a lack of knowledge? I don't know. This is one of the questions I think requires a long time within a culture to really understand. There may be all sorts of subtle reasons that are not clear to the outside mzungu. Then again, there may be many people ready to switch to something better if given the chance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

HEAL Africa

The city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been on the periphery of a guerilla war to the north for several years now. After the end of the Rwandan genocide, many of the Hutu perpetrators fled west into Goma, taking advantage of the non-existant government of the eastern Congo. The newly installed Tutsi Rwandan army conducted border raids, and eventually a Tutsi proxy army sprung up in DRC to fight the Hutus. The Congolese army, violent and ill-disciplined, took the side of the hutus. So in a small geographical area, at least four separate military forces vied for control. Through the years, the allegiences have switched back and forth. Like the drugs that fuel the Colombian FARC, valuable minerals (especially coltan) have sustained the violence in eastern DRC.

Located on top of the lava that over-ran the city in 2006 is HEAL Africa, one of the largest and best run hospitals in DRC. The doctors, nurses, and practitioners that provide care here are mostly Congolese, but they come from all over the world. And their expertise is needed here to heal the wounds from the sadistic violence of the war. While the last few months have seen a reduction in violence (with the capture of Laurent Nkunda), the need is as large as ever.

Over the last few years, First Pres Berkeley has sent several teams to the hospital. I've heard so much about the place, and now have finally arrived in Goma to see for myself. I'll be here for a week to work with the on-site building maintanance team to look into power use and water issues. Currently, we're looking into adding a slow-sand filter to clean the rainwater that is used when the city water supply is unavailable (this happens when the power goes out and the city water pumps stop running). If all goes well, a filter could be up and running in a few months.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The ACTS Camp

On Wednesday and Thursday this week I had the opportunity to spend time in the project camp for Africa Community Technical Service (ACTS), one of the organizations I'm hoping to partner with (that's still not finalized yet, which I'll discuss in a moment). The camp is located just outside the small village of Ncera, about a two hour drive south west of Mbarara. It's made up of about 15 tents, a small office, a kitchen and a small dormitory. The camp serves as the living quarters for the construction and engineering team that builds out the gravity flow systems (GFS) that ACTS specializes in. The Ugandan construction team lives in the dormitories, and the visiting interns and engineers typically live in the tents.

I was visiting to get up to speed on the GFS design process, and to collect some software for the friction loss calculations. The current project in Ncera will serve about 5,000 people in several villages once complete. The water is delivered to communal 'tap stands', from which people can fill jerry cans to carry back to the their homes. On future projects, ACTS is looking to inorporate rainwater harvesting from the roofs of homes farther than 400 meters from tap stands. This will reduce the distance families need to travel to get water.

I also had the chance to observe a program called "Farming God's Way", taught by a young couple from the US. Farming God's Way is a version of conservation agriculture, which is essentially farming without irrigation, pesticides or fertilizers. We might call it organic farming in the US. Conservation agriculture increases yields for the local farmers, allowing them  to move beyond subsitance farming.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Simplicity: Water Delivered by Gravity

In remote communities, there are only a few ways to get water; and often there are even fewer ways to get clean water. For the poorest, the simplest option is often the only one: fetching water from a stream. This is usually a less-than ideal solution because streams can easily be polluted by others living up-stream. The streams are used for washing clothes, feeding animals, and open defacation. Obviously this creates all sorts of problems when trying to use it as a potable water source. A second option is well water - this is often safe, and for a while a plentiful source. However, it is limited in the number of people it can serve because people must walk to the well. Therefore, many wells are needed when serving sparsely populated areas.

A third option is called gravity water distribution, and it works like this: a source is identified on top of a hill, protected, and then pipes are built out to resevoirs as far as 10km away. This has the advantage of providing clean water to a large number of people distributed over a wide area. It is also simple - it doesn't require any mechanical equipment, and therefore does not need electricity to operate. It is also very easy to maintain. The only drawback is the initial expertise required to develop the system, and the possibility that the source may run out if used too quickly. In general however, it is a system with many advantages and few drawbacks.