Friday, October 11, 2013

Humanitarian Efforts are like Beer and Yogurt

Embarking on a humanitarian effort in developing countries is a little like my first experiences with beer and yogurt. When I was a kid, I'd see these TV ads with a local bodybuilder talking about Yogurt and what a great thing it was- so creamy, so healthy. Beer ads always showed someone having a good time with friends, or taking a refreshing break on a hot day. I couldn't wait to try these divine products. Then I did. Yogurt was horrible. Sour, mostly. Beer was worse- bitter and loamy. Yuck. Any person is faced with a choice at this point- swear off em forever, or readjust your expectations. I ended up adjusting my views of both yogurt and beer, and enjoy them to this day.

My first experience with a humanitarian project in a developing country was with a group travelling to Nicaragua during the war there in the 1980s. We were all pumped up to go develop a health clinic in a town sorely in need of one. Our first casualty was at the airport in San Francisco. Dawning on people what we were doing and getting ourselves into, we had a defection at the gate. Once in Nicaragua, things were seemingly OK, at first. The people treated us really well. We worked hard and partied hard. A certain amount of tourist diarrhea and cock roaches as big as my shoes, but hey. About a week into our visit, several of us went into the capital Managua to buy paint. When we got back to our town, it was in an uproar. An ambush by the Contras, US supported rebels fighting the Sandinista regime, had attached the mayor's car on her way back from a neighboring town. She was fine, but our crew wasn't. The reality of what we were doing sunk in hard. The next day,a large contingent was headed for the airport home. I stayed, by the way.

Almost without exception, people I have met over the last 25 years start with a fairly pure and hopeful vision of what it will be like bringing people safe water and sanitation. Given enough money and technology, we can save the world. Then comes reality. Language barriers and misunderstandings. Community groups with conflicting goals and agendas. Technologies not well suited for uses. Lack of qualified people to maintain things. Lack of community participation and buy-in.

This is where that old yogurty bitter taste becomes evident. Then you must choose- abandon your efforts, or adjust and get to work. The one thing for sure is water and sanitation interventions in developing countries are never simple in-and-out propositions. To be effective and sustainable, these projects require, careful planning, intense listening,  innovation, and a sustained effort, in order to make sure that they are still effective for the next generation.