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.

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