Development Work Must Focus on Community Needs
This article was co-written by Sean McNulty ’14 and Daniel Swain ’13.
Descending to Guatemala’s Pacific coast feels like stepping slowly into a sauna. As the air heats up and becomes heavy with moisture, the land flattens and the crops grow tall until the only perspective available is directly down the road you travel. Our bus, spewing diesel exhaust and splashing through puddles, turns onto a dirt road. Each successive pot-hole delivers a shuddering jolt. Rubber, sugar cane and banana palm give way to fields of corn grown for subsistence, and the small town of Willywood springs like an oasis from the vast expanse of agriculture. First, we see the blinking of its two enormous cell phone towers. Unaccompanied as they are by either pavement or two story buildings, the effect is incongruous.
Our team of five lived in Willy for two months to research the links between health and drinking water. Whitman Direct Action, our organization, was started seven years ago for Whitman students to discuss and act in international development work. WDA’s projects are designed through independent studies, paid through fundraising and grants, and realized in the field without the guiding supervision of parents, professors, or professionals. We partnered permanently with Willywood two years ago, and the community has since told us clean water is their most pressing need. Most residents drink directly from wells, which are contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and agricultural chemicals. How can five undergraduates use their resources to help Willywood fight for such a basic right?
Answering this question is an ongoing task. Despite its lofty ideals, development work must happen in the messy world of everyday humanity. This is a difficult lesson for college students to learn. Our motivations, intellects and plans are writ in a world where complex thoughts receive a failing grade if expressed without a strong thesis, but the world of everyday human practices is simply too messy and complex to allow for neat solutions to problems. Asking what we can do to help the community is a question without an end that frustrates our undergraduate training and desire for right and wrong answers. Our first step was to understand what was already being done to provide clean drinking water in Willywood.
There are two major projects already addressing the lack of clean drinking water in Willywood. The first is an Oxfam-funded distribution of ceramic water filters. The second is the community’s own effort to obtain a functioning water tower. The former is a clean-cut example of an unsustainable development project, the latter an ongoing, ambitious struggle towards a partial solution. Ultimately, the best use of our grant money wasn’t implementing a third project; it was learning, through the lens of the tower and the filters, how not to do a project in Willywood.
This is a community that, at first glance, might not require outside help. It was forged in the crucible of social activism. After the brutal state-sponsored genocide of the Mayan people over two war-torn decades, landless peasants organized and participated in a caminata, or march, to win this land. In the spring of 1986, 16,000 indigenous marchers clogged the roads from the steamy lowland city of Nueva Concepcion over the rugged volcanic ridge of the Sierra Madre mountains into Guatemala City. They covered a distance of 150 kilometers over five days. Political opposition was so intense that they couldn’t accept gifts of food for fear that it would have been poisoned.
At the capital, the Catholic priests who had organized the march negotiated a deal with the president. Those who had participated in la caminata would receive a fallow cotton plantation in the hottest part of the country on credit. In this lifeless plain exhausted by industrial agriculture, the marchers planted trees, made houses from cardboard and plastic tarps, dug wells, and raised a vibrant community from the dirt. In the words of one resident, “When we got here, there was nothing but weeds.” Willywood was founded by people in possession of an awe-inspiring passion to build a better life for themselves.
It’s hard to say if the same drive that made the march so effective has been passed on to Willywood’s second generation. As a method of improving their lives, demonstration and demand have been replaced by development and aid. In the eyes of some, the community is no longer focused on the future. “We planted fruit trees to feed the next generation,” said one older resident, “and now people just worry about lunch for today.”
Do water projects provide a foundation for the next generations, or a material fix that’s as fleeting and disposable as a band-aid? In 1998, Guatemala was devastated by Hurricane Mitch. Oxfam delivered relief and identified fecal contamination as a top priority in Willy. This year, they provided forty ceramic filters to the community through a local women’s group named Madre Tierra.
The filter project, in a best-case scenario, provides those families most at risk for water-borne illness with the tools to avoid it. Raphaela Olmos, amother of eleven, told us emphatically that her filter improved the health of her children. While slow, they effectively kill the pathogens living in her drinking water. However, the success of such a project cannot be so simply measured. It is an example of exactly the type of project that WDA does not want to do. The basic problem with the filters is that they are impermanent. They are not only prone to breaking, but wear out after a year of use. They are difficult to replace, as ordering them requires a bulk order through Madre Tierra by an organized group of community members who have already received them, and they are impossible to build in the community. They are not spectacularly expensive, but would likely be one of the larger single purchases a family would make in a year. It would be unlikely for a group of families to have that money available all at the same time.
In this way, not only did the filters offer Willywood little more than the opportunity to become dependent on an outside source of clean water, but that opportunity is fleeting and out of reach. Additionally, a project such as this says to the community that they are not to be trusted with their own health, and that time and money is better invested in a piece of technology than in people. After all of the filters have worn out, it is not clear what anyone will have gained.
The community raised their water tower on a grant from the Japanese embassy and logistical support from ASDENA, a Guatemalan organization. The tower is an ambitious effort that, like the filter project, has faced down a host of challenges and limitations. Unlike the filters, however, the tower is an inclusive, community-driven effort that is responsive to Willywood’s continual investment of resources in the continuing battle for clean water.
The tower will, assuming it was built to specifications, draws from a well dug by machine to 24 meters, deep below the water table. The water costs families a reasonable rate based on the electricity required for their personal consumption, and unburdens them from the danger of drinking water directly from their personal wells, which are shallow and easily contaminated. Unfortunately, a host of problems left the tank rusting in disuse. The electricity company drove prices for pumping up to prohibitive levels, scorpions chewed up the wiring, and mud and feces seeped into the distribution pipes.
We’d been in the community for about a month when the wiring was repaired. In a few days, men were digging up old pipes and laying fresh ones on every block. When we left in late July, the ash-grey water that had been stagnating the tank for more than a year was getting flushed through the taps. This isn’t a ‘resolution’ of the tank saga. The mayor has rallied the money for restoration, but has no clear plan for long-term maintenance. Nonetheless the community continues to hope and fight for safe water and better health, and the fight lurches forward. The tank, unlike the water filters, is not a failed solution; it is a partial and ongoing one, a temporary and incomplete response in a perpetual state of flux.
This, we believe, is appropriate. Just as the problem is more complicated than the presence of pathogens in water, the response to it must be more complex than filtering those pathogens out. Projects like these disrupt the question/answer conceit of our classroom conditioning, in which we are taught to produce cogent answers directed at a particular set of expectations and directed questions. Thinking of community development in this framework is neither responsible nor commendable. Real, human problems—the kind we seek out and wrestle with in Willy—do not fit the classroom model.They are deep, difficult, and devoid of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.
Accepting this and incorporating it into our project and ongoing philosophy, is a major accomplishment of this summer. If we acknowledge that human problems are complex, shifting targets, the solutions must be similarly dynamic to be long-lasting. Therefore, the answers are abstract. They need to be updated and attended to; they can’t be left behind with a plaque and a date scratched into their foundations.
We didn’t spend $12,000 buying material goods for Willywood, nor did we pitch in our manual labor to install piping. We spent our time and energy on what Whitman students are trained to do best: learning.We conducting scientific tests, learning from community members, and, in turn, sharing with them the information we had gleaned ourselves. In short, we aren’t interested in delivering expensive, inaccessible solutions to Willy, instead, we want to understand what works in development, what doesn’t, and what makes communities tick beyond the simplistic categories of problems and solutions.
Much of our daily work consisted of sharing the results of a simple test for the presence of fecal bacteria. If the well water we place in our test-tubes turns inky black after forty-eight hours, we explain to the family that their water is contaminated. It is a dramatic indication of a health risk, a way to make the invisible visible, spread knowledge, and spark conversation. It’s also the first step as we move poco a poco—little by little—towards realizing change.
Some community members were devastated by the test tubes turned black. Others were unsurprised, but grateful for the visual evidence. One mother, worrying the black sample bottle with her fingers, was crushed. She testified, to our team and her neighbors at our culminating assembly, that she has begun boiling drinking water and cooling it overnight for her family. A worried housewife can transform behavior and broadcast that transformation to those around her and in doing so, she can affect change, for herself and for others, in a way that one year of water filtered by a piece of ceramics cannot.
There are already ways to drink potable water in Willywood. Water can be boiled, chemically treated with a safe amount of bleach, bought in five gallon jugs, or come from completing a functioning water tower. Additionally, residents could construct catchment systems to drink rain water during the wet season, or solar purifiers for the dry season. They could conserve their resources and buy water for their young children, who are most vulnerable to water-borne illnesses. They could keep animals and pesticides far from their wells and construct composting toilets to prevent contamination of groundwater. They could do all these things and many more creative fixes that we haven’t thought of, but we cannot do it for them. It will take the sharing of knowledge, the investment of time, deep human connections and understanding, and the belief, among all involved, that those who live in Willywood are those who will create change in Willywood.
Filed under: Opinion