Wednesday, September 30, 2009

All together now!

There's a lot going on in the water community of Uganda, at least in Mbarara district. The National Water and Sewerage Corporation, the Church of Uganda, and various NGOs all play a part in providing safe water and sanitation to the people here. Yesterday I sat in on a semi-annual coordination meeting between these groups; the purpose is to keep abreast of what each organization is doing and to not duplicate our efforts.

The chairman, a member of the district government, opened the meeting by expounding at length upon the issues he sees as critical to improving water and sanitation. Among these issues were things such as increasing water coverage for high altitude areas (above GFS coverage), planting trees to prevent erosion, empowering water committees to promote sustainability, and bypassing politicians to prevent corruption. On that last point, the chairman made the comment that many local politicians will take bribes to allow people to illegally tap into water lines.

Most interestingly, a presentation was given on the progress of a water census being conducted in Uganda (WATSUP). The purpose of the census is to track progress in providing water, to prioritize projects, and to report to the UN regarding progress made towards achieving the MDGs. Currently the safe water coverage of the Mbarara district stands at 61%, which is much lower than I expected based on what I have seen. Clearly I haven't been out in the rural areas enough.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

You want to build what?

I'm trying to get over some confused looks here in Mbarara as I wander from store to store, asking for strange parts, wood cut to odd dimensions, and joining L-brackets to small blocks of aluminum. I'm trying to build a refrigerator and many folks are a little surprised at that. Understandable - I hesitate a moment before explaining to someone what I'm doing. Even I think I'm a little crazy.

But once I get over my self-consciousness and properly explain what I'm doing, I've been met with a lot of enthusiasm. Several of my suppliers want me to bring in the fridge when I'm done so they can see what all this work is about. They're excited to see something new and unusual.

In case you're wondering, the fridge itself is actually quite simple. It's based on the "Peltier effect" and uses a small cooling module sometimes used in electronics. When an electric current is passed through the module, one side becomes hot and the other cool. Heat is therefore "pumped" from one side to the other.

However, despite its simplicity actually constructing and mounting the equipment has proved difficult with limited resources. I'm learning how to source parts and build from whatever supplies I can find in Mbarara (and occasionally Kampala). For example, today I was explaining to a local metal-worker I wanted to join small L-brackets to a block of aluminum. The purpose of this is to seal the cooling unit off from the inside of the refrigerator, which will be filled with water to help maintain temperature during a power outage. It was a very unusual request, and requires working in aluminum, so he wanted 70,000 UGX ($35). Unfortunately that's way more than I can pay to keep the entire project to a reasonable cost. So now I need to go back to the drawing board - how can I achieve the same goal for a lower cost? It's a process of design iteration.

The purpose of the refrigerator is to demonstrate that a reliable and efficient vaccine cooler can be built in a developing country for low cost. Ideally, the model could be copied in countries all over the world facing the problem of reliably delivering vaccines. This model should be finished in a few weeks and operating in a rural clinic, at which point I will be testing energy use to properly size a solar system to power the unit.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Building relationships before building pipes

I was sitting on a small wooden chair in front of about 50 community members of a hilltop village in the Kasese district of Uganda, at the foot of the Rwenzori mountains. With the sun beating down, a confident-looking man stood up to ask a question after a brief presentation by the regional director of the organization with which I'm volunteering. "We (Anglicans) have come out to work, and yet others have done nothing. Why should they benefit from our labor, when they have been invited to join and have refused?"

A tricky question that requires a little background. These water projects are done with the invitation of the Church of Uganda, a member of the Anglican Communion. The Church works hand in hand with the central government all over Uganda, in areas such as health care, income generation projects, and community health. In many cases, this partnership works out very well because the pastors are knowledgeable and respected members of their communities. With their buy-in, it is much easier to learn about the local community and receive their support. It is also easier to explain to the community the goals and potential benefits of a project.

The work camp. Click for larger image.

And this works out fine as long as the Anglican church is the center of the community. In the Kasese area, this is not so much the case - at least fifty percent of the population belongs to the Seventh Day Adventist church, and 5-10% are Muslims. It appears that this particular project started as most do, with an invitation from the Anglican church. However, with that invitation came the impression that it would be solely an Anglican project. And so when the time came to start digging trenches, an Anglican church came out, but nobody else did. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

The pipes for the gravity flow system will serve all people within the catchment area, restricted only by the flow rate of the source. It is therefore critically important that the other communities participate in the construction, so that everyone has a sense of ownership and no religious group resents the other (or at least don't resent them for not doing their fair share of the work). Luckily on hand this afternoon was a potential solution - local government. These village leaders represent people of all religions within their cell (the smallest unit of government in Uganda). With their buy-in, it would be possible to convince the Seventh Day Adventists and Muslims that the water would benefit them just as much as the Anglicans. Hopefully in the days ahead they will be able to mobilize their communities to start digging.

Working with a respected member of a community is a critical step in any development project. In Uganda, this is often the Anglican church, especially because government so often lacks credibility. However for this project the Anglicans could not legitimately claim to represent the whole community. Thankfully there appears to be effective local government to bring legitimacy to this important project.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Christianity and Development, Part 3: Inclusiveness

Here's an obvious statement: religion plays a major role in the lives of most people on earth; especially so in the developing world. Customs and habits have been formed and deeply ingrained because of particular religious beliefs. For many, the desire for a better life is intricately linked with their faith. And yet many NGO's that address development issues are completely secular. But this is for good reason.

Fundamentally there are two reasons why religion and development have a difficult relationship. The first and most serious issue is that of inclusiveness: what happens when the communities you're working in aren't one (or one particular kind) of faith? If I enter into a split Muslim/Christian community (quite common here in Uganda) with a Christian agenda, I will likely exacerbate an already tenuous relationship between the two groups. Even if my aim is not strictly to proselytize, I have to be extremely careful about how I conceive and implement projects so as to work towards community development, not estrangement. For example, I have a friend working in eastern Congo, who told me of a conversation she had with a Muslim family in Ethiopia - the father said simply, "I'll be whatever religion they want me to be if they will feed my family." In a situation like that, not only are these people hungry, but they are forced into the humiliating position of lying about their very identity just to survive. This is not treating your neighbor as yourself.

Secondly, when addressing religion (whether through a secular organization or not) one must be well versed in exactly what that religion looks like in that community. Even global religions (such as Islam or Christianity) have been deeply morphed to fit a local context. For example, the saint's days prevalent in Latin America were used to incorporate pre-Christian beliefs into the new religion. If an organization enters a community with a pre-conceived notion of what the people's faith is about, they're bound to make some pretty serious mistakes when attempting to address religion in their projects.

But if religion is not constructively engaged, then a central part of a community's identity is missed. Change, even for the good, can breed resentment if it is not framed as a religious imperative. I've had several conversations with Christians here in Uganda in which the speaker has bemoaned the fact that development has simply brought more bars (now I think a great bar is a wonderful thing, but then again I'm not a Ugandan).

I've been thinking about these issues as I consider how to holistically engage a small community in the process of development. Many organizations address a particular issue - AIDS, water, nutrition, conflict, micro-finance, etc - at a worldwide level. They work in particular communities, but primarily to address whatever issue is their expertise. However, some (mostly smaller) organizations do the reverse - they work on many issues but only in small communities of which they have a great understanding. Both models have their place, but as I said above I'm personally more interested in working on many issues in a small community. And when that's your model, the role of religion in the community becomes a huge issue.

So what is the answer? Um right now I'm still thinking about it. But two organizations I've been associated with in the past are doing a great job trying to address this issue. Agros and Amextra, both working in Latin America, attempt to address a wide range of issues in small communities. They are motivated by a Christian belief, but they do not proselytize. Because their staff are mostly (though not required to be) Christian, they have an understanding of how to work with and respect the local community as it works towards its own "transformation."