Sunday, January 30, 2011

Little Fish in a Big, Strange Pond

Last week I was asked to attend a government meeting regarding the environment.  My local colleague Zeke informed me that the provincial government authority on the agriculture and environment sector had months ago requested all NGOs to make plans and commitments for how they would contribute toward improving the environment around us, mainly, by planting trees and other long-lasting plants.   Apparently there was not a very good response from NGOs in the province, because now this government was calling for an “emergency meeting” on the matter.  So we went to the meeting.

The meeting was held at the provincial government building.  Provincial government here might be similar to state government back home.  I could tell right away that they do their best to impress their guests at this building, the first clue was the red carpet they had rolled down the steps leading up to the entrance.  The conference room we met in was also quite a sight.  An oval table perhaps 100 ft long stretched the length of the room, leather office chairs providing 50-60 seats, and a microphone in front of each chair.   The seats were perhaps half full by the time the meeting was scheduled to begin, but where was the government official leading the meeting?  He straggled in 10 minutes late, laughing and joking about how he fell asleep in his office.

As it turned out, this government official was quite a character.  In a western country perhaps he would make a good stand-up comedian, because at times he had his audience- leaders of all sorts of organizations, doubled over in hard laughter.  He was not the only character in the room.  As I looked around I realized that many of the various leaders (all locals, I was the only foreigner in the place) had had different foreign experiences.  Where all of these fellows had been, I could not guess, but they had each brought something back from their experience, something that they must have decided would be the next “it” thing in this country.  In essence as I looked around the room there were all sorts of shoes, coats, briefcases, hats, glasses, and hairdos that are definitely NOT part of the local trends here.  Put all these fellows together and it just looked like a room of misfits.  Though I was the only foreigner in the room, so how I felt like I fit in.

The meeting got underway when the leader make an elaborate speech of gratitude for all the organization’s past efforts to improve the environment.  He said that if we went into any school yard in the province, we would see new trees planted there.  After this beautiful monologue, he simplified his speech when he said, “but a lot of them are dried up.”  As he continued on to his appeal for further donations or contributions for 2011, I wondered to myself, “are we here just to do this government’s work?  Are they doing anything with their own budget, or are they just attributing our work as their own?” 

I came back to attention when I heard the government leader begin to name organizations that had not contributed in past years.  This was shocking because in this culture it is a serious thing to shame people by naming their shortcomings.  I looked around and realized that he was naming people that were not in attendance.  “Wow,” I thought, “this fellow must actually have a lot of power to be able to get away with these criticisms.”  I went on to hope that his next target was not our organization!

When our organization’s name came up, Zeke sort of quivered, then acknowledged the government leader.  To both Zeke’s and my surprise, this leader had only praises for our organization’s work.  He called us the #1 org in this sector, because of the care we put into our work.  Zeke told me later this praise might have just been because 3 years ago they planted a tree in the leader’s office yard.  Whatever the reason, the leader recommended that other organizations, including the big boys, look at our work as the model. 

Well now it seems we have some big words to live up to, and to be honest I feel pretty small about all this.  I have looked at our agriculture and environment work and felt that it has a lot of room for improvement.  But, if what we are doing is better than most others, I guess we can try to help others improve, and continuing moving in that direction ourselves as well.

Want to hear the funniest thing about the meeting though?  It was all videotaped by the local TV station, and broadcast on the nightly news, and the cameraman spent a fair amount of time catching all the angles of me, the only foreigner in the room.  Weird.

Subsidizing Biosand Filters

Last time I wrote about Biosand Filters (BSFs), I told how we distributed the first round of BSFs.  In summary, we linked the BSFs with a practical women’s health course.  First village women participated in learning about hygiene and health, and after they demonstrated their learning by making changes in their household hygiene or sanitation, we gave them Biosand Filters to further support their behavior changes with clean water. 

The health courses ended in early December, and since then the women’s team has been spending 3 days a week revisiting women that received the BSFs for monitoring and evaluation, which basically amounts to supporting the women in sustaining the changes they had made, including using the BSF.  This support has proven to be vital to the BSFs, because there has been some common issues that recipients have faced, like freezing, clogging with mud, and family members being confused and dipping water out of the top of the filter.

One of the biggest lessons learned in round one was that without monitoring and evaluation, most of the filters would not have been used.  This would have to be taken into consideration as we considered plans to spread the BSFs much further than just the 4 villages we had started in.  With the distribution of BSFs being dependent on our ability to monitor and evaluate, and with only 4 women on the team for this task, we have a limitation to overcome. 

The best suggestion for overcoming our monitoring limitation is from our local project leader Zeke.  His idea is for us to gather and train representatives from all the surrounding villages in which we want to spread BSFs.  The reps would be trained in proper installation and maintenance of the filters, as well as other monitoring and support tools that they could use to support BSF owners.  The incentive for these reps to serve the owners of BSFs is that they would also be the salesmen.   Zeke’s idea was that if we bought the filters from the factory for $20 (the actual production cost, including labor) then we could turn and sell them to the village reps for $10.  By subsidizing 50% of the cost, our project then provides income for the reps we have trained to install and monitor the BSFs, ensuring that the BSFs are not only distributed, but that people are supported and able to use them.

I believe the strength of the subsidy program will be that it enforces monitoring and support, allows us to stretch into a dozen or more villages, and it builds value in the BSFs.  If everything works right, the reps will be motivated to sell a lot of BSFs, which provides clean water to a lot of families.  Yet they won’t be able to continue sales if they are not monitoring those with issues with their BSF- they must offer “customer support” in order to continue their “business”.  Hopefully we will see that good support leads to good acceptance of the technology, and growth of interest.  Then we will see if $10 is an appropriate price for villagers to pay or not.  Charging a cost for the second round of BSFs is also a strategic step, because we have to move toward a program design that is sustainable without external (NGO) help.  Next time I write about BSFs, I will tell you what I’m cooking up for round 3. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How we distributed the first 500 Biosand Filters.

If you have read my previous post titled “Producing and Distributing Biosand Filters, Round 1”, then perhaps you wondered how we chose whom to distribute filters to.  Or if you have done some other reading or have experience in development work, you might ask how we ensure that the Biosand Filters (BSFs) contribute to the goal of positive, lasting changes in persons and communities, and how we mitigate the risks that any product distribution project can run into?  In this post I will attempt to answer these questions (and you can keep me accountable to that!)

Our BSF distribution is just part of our broader WASH program (remember Water, Advocacy, Sanitation, and Hygiene).  The evidence of success in a program like this is not how many products we distribute, but how much the people themselves change in each of the WASH subjects.  Because we say we value personal and social changes, we have to be able to measure and record them.  Donor organizations of course need regular reports, but reports are even more important for the communities we are working for.  In order to measure and record change, we begin to gather Baseline Data from the first visit.

Baseline Data is simply information that describes the living situation of communities prior to any project’s activities.  We gather this data so that we have something to compare the end result to.  Basically, the baseline is the “before” picture that we snap of the community.  Our local CDP facilitators are trained to enter new villages as learners, and not make a big show of the knowledge and ideas they have, especially during Baseline Data gathering time.  The point of this time is to listen, learn, and respect poor community members for what they are able to do, and not blame or shame them for what they have not done or cannot do.  A good summary of Baseline Data flows like a story told by a community resident, and contains a significant portion of verbatim statements of community members.  One activity that helps the Baseline Data time flow smoothly is mapping.  Our team might ask community members to take them on a walk in the village, or sit and draw a map on paper or in the dirt.  Mapping or village walks are simple tools that provide many topics and make conversation, discussions, and questions come easier.

Baseline Data should flow like a story, and it should also be packed with details that describe a representation of the households.  Sitting in the mosque or walking around the village provides some insights, but it is also essential to get into some homes.  This is tricky because it is possible for village members to take the lead and show us only what they want us to see.  On the other hand, we do not want to walk into a house uninvited and without reason.  One way to get past this is to number all the houses on the map, put numbered paper scraps in a hat, and then have volunteers draw some numbers out.  We usually aim to talk with at least 15-20% of the households, so we ask the volunteers to draw out 15-20% of the numbers in the hat.  The numbers they pull are then the houses we visit, and the group around knows about this and sends children to warn the households that visitors are coming! 

In each of the homes, our female facilitators ask for a woman willing to answer some questions for what we call a KAP survey.  KAP stands for Knowledge, Attitude, and Practice.  I personally do not like questionnaire surveys at all, but the KAP survey has a plus in that it seeks information from different angles.  We cannot assume that because a person says it is right to boil their river water that they actually do, it is best to ask.  Here’s a few other questions on our KAP survey:
            -Why do you wash your hands?
            -How many buckets of water do you fetch every day?
-How do you store water to keep it clean?
-How do you describe the quality of your water?
            -Do you treat your water before drinking?  If yes what method?
-Do you have a latrine?  If yes can I see it?  If no… where do you go?  Where do you take your children to go?
-What are the reasons to have a latrine?
-How do you prevent diahrrea in children?
-What do you do if your child has severe diahrrea?
            After these and others questions are asked in the KAP survey, the summary of data is compiled from each village, and along with the narrative data from village meetings, we keep a folder we call the Baseline.

The Baseline is useful information to keep for various projects, but we use the KAP more specifically to help us cater a hygiene course to the specific needs in each village.  The KAP tells us what the main gaps are in people’s understandings, any wrong teachings or attitudes they have bought into, and the actual behavior of people there in regard to water and sanitation.  The KAP also help us identify the families most vulnerable to water-borne or fecal-borne disease, and these become the families that we specifically hope to interest in hygiene training.

The female facilitators in our project run the hygiene training currently, and they have borrowed methodology from an excellent local-midwife training course called BLISS (Basic Live Saving Skills).  This course uses dramas, role-casting, and other participatory teaching methods to connect with illiterate and traditional people.  In the same way our facilitators do not lecture, but rather bring lesson material in a way that engages the women from the community.

I wish I could say that our hygiene course is so good that when women complete the course they immediately buy a Biosand Filter and build a healthy latrine.  That might be the case in a community that has not been spoon-fed by a whole list of NGOs.  Sadly, almost all communities in this area have been paid to take a training course, and that has completely changed the local mentality about learning.  Yes you heard me right, many NGOs pay the villagers to come to their training, not the other way around.  The effect this has on our project is that we are unable to do any training without at least offering an incentive. 

We have used the Biosand Filters as an incentive for our hygiene training, but there’s also a catch in the incentive program.  Women that are interested in our hygiene training (sometimes because they really want to learn about proper hygiene and sometimes because they show interest because they think they can get paid to sit in your course and twiddle their thumbs) are told that our course is practical, and it encourages hygiene behavior changes.  Further, we tell them that any participant who applies 2 lessons learned by making 2 positive changes in her house will then receive a Biosand Filter.  In this way we encourage participation, learning, and changes, and yes, we have given away a lot of Biosand Filters in this way. 

Well that took a lot longer to explain than I planned, but I hope it made some sense.  I am very open to your feedback on the way we have done this program, because we are currently evaluating and moving to a new phase of distributing BSFs through male trainers/installers.  We have found that linking BSFs to a women’s hygiene course has produced a gender issue we did not predict, and now we are trying to address that.  More on that another time!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Admitting our wrongs (its hard)

Yesterday we hosted a meeting with the big boys.  When I say big boys I am talking about program managers of projects that have coverage over a whole district, or budgets over 1 million USD.  There are a lot of big boys where we live, because we are in the provincial center, and their offices are here as well.  What do the big boys do?  You name it: health, schools, roads, water, ag, military or police training, refugee assistance, drought response, and the list goes on.

So the big boys arrive at our office, and in the small talk before we start they are commenting on how cute our mud office is (they work from cement building, big deal).  We get into reporting on 2010 activities, and I stress the point that our best results have come from consistent monitoring of our projects to provide follow-up support to BSF recipients.  I had mentioned this because our big goal for 2011 is to stimulate the private market for BSFs, and we need to boost the social value for them in order to do that.  The social value is currently lousy in areas where other NGOs have done free distributions without any follow-up monitoring or support to BSF recipients.  I didn’t fully realize that mentioning this would tread on the toes of some of the big boys.  One of them then began a very indirect, round-shaped argument, and after 15 minutes he finally released his bottom line- he was telling us to back off, and belittling the value of the work we had done.  That was not a big deal to me, I’m not here to impress the big boys at all.  Unfortunately, for my local co-worker Zed, whom I am helping to train to become the project leader, this was very upsetting. 

Though my co-worker Zed stayed calm, he did proceed to go into a retaliation argument, customary for this culture.  He brought up examples of mistakes the big boy’s org had committed; he told about broken wells that he had personally fixed for villages.  I gulped as I guessed what was coming next.  For the next 20 minutes my co-worker Zed and one of the big boys abandoned English and argued loud and hard in their language.  The rest of the big boys did not seem inclined to intervene, though some looked at me to suggest that I do so, as the meeting chairman.  I finally heard a conclusive statement from the arguing big boy, and realized that ultimately he was right on the main matter of contention, and my co-worker needed to back off.  I said a quick prayer that my voice and words would be strong enough to break up the fight, because these guys were both at least 15 years my senior, and both twice my weight (I told you, big boys).  I finally did what I’ve seen other mediators in this culture do, and started talking above the noise, and continued until the argument faded and I had the floor.  Then I concluded the matter: our NGO should not have fixed the broken wells, because the big boy’s NGO had laid out a community-sustainable maintenance plan. 

See the story was that the big boy’s org had drilled the wells, installed high quality pumps, and trained a local mechanic to maintain and repair the well pumps.  They had also met with the local council of village elders to set terms on community payment for the local mechanic to do his job.  The community had agreed to pay the local mechanic with wheat grain, so that he would do his job and keep the well pumps working well.  What the village decided to do rather than pay the local mechanic was to approach us, another NGO, and have us fix the wells for free.  We did not know about the local mechanic, but we did not ask, and we went ahead and fixed it.  Not only that, our repairs had been inadequate, especially on a deep well (over 120 feet).  This was clearly a case in which we needed better collaboration between our two organizations.  We needed to know what wells had been dug by this org, and what their maintenance terms with the villages were. 

Today I spent some time talking with Zed about the importance of admitting our mistakes, and seeking to restore relationships.  It was an interesting moment because Zed is nearly twice my age, very competent in many of the tasks of a project manager, but he still needs a lot of support.  Him and I are still working out how we share leadership and work together, but I was really pleased to sense that he allowed my counsel on this matter.  This is reason enough in my mind for me to be here, because if we can continue to train and set apart leaders in this country, leaders in serving the poorest of their own people, leaders of good character, of open hearts, then we will see good change happen here in years to come.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Producing and Distributing Biosand Filters, Round 1

 Our project started a WASH program in 2010.  WASH stands for Water, Advocacy, Sanitation, Hygiene.  There has been a significant emphasis on WASH throughout the country, because let’s face it, the conditions of these aspects of life here are horrible.  The villages our project was working in already had some wells, but they were either in disrepair or viewed to be slow in comparison with filling a bucket by dipping it into the community pool of water fed by irrigation canals.  The project looked for filter technologies and learned of one organization that had experience in producing BSF and was offering training to other NGOs.  A team of our local facilitators attended the training, and upon returning one of the men began to set up a BSF factory.  A lot of work was put into making excellent quality steel forms for the cement filter housings, because these housings need to be perfectly sealed and resilient to the stress of transporting.  Next our team went to work finding the best sources of quarry gravel and sand.  Finally they selected a few skilled masons to begin to learn how to produce the BSFs.  I will visit the BSF factory next week and be able to tell you more about this operation after that.

In 2010 our project asked the masons at the factory to produce 700 BSFs, and they did it.  How do we go about distributing these filters?  I was not here when that discussion took place within the project team, but I am told that it was quite a debate.  Several on the local facilitator team like to give away as much as they can for free, but the rest have experienced time and again that projects fail when they give any items for free.  The compromise the team struck was that BSFs would come at the end of a health course offered to women.  Our female facilitators have put together 5 participatory health and hygiene lessons geared at behavioral change.  From the start they announce to participants that they will reward women that apply what they learn by making positive changes to their health and hygiene habits in their house, yard, or with their family.  Then the course proceeds, and at the end the facilitators take a “tour” of participants’ houses, in which the participants show and demonstrate the applications they have made with their course learning.  Two or more positive changes earns the woman a BSF for her family.  There are certainly pros and cons to this method, as with all methods, but this is what our project did for the first round. 

So now, in a handful of villages in this wild country, there are biosand filters being used by hundreds of families, and the word is spreading that they even work!  In addition to BSFs distributed to villages, the masons we trained received private purchase orders for 31 BSFs- this is exciting because that is a great step towards sustainability!  The other way we are efforting to promote sustainability is by monitoring the BSFs that we have distributed to make sure that the owners are learning how to properly use, maintain, and troubleshoot their BSFs.  All of these points were taught at the time of installation, but 2-4 return visits for monitoring are necessary to correct, encourage, or affirm the owners on these matters. 

We are now working out our plans for further work with BSFs in 2011, but we are leaning towards expanding into subsidizing local sellers/installers, so that we can spread this good technology into many more villages that need clean water.  More on that, next time.

Intro to Biosand filters

I have often mentioned that water and sanitation is a big emphasis in our community development project.  Today I will introduce you to one of the appropriate technologies we are using here for clean water.  I am spending a lot of my time right now working on marketing and maintenance support for these, so I will probably be writing a lot about these.  This is the post you will want to read first, as it will give you the background on the device I call BSF.

The Biosand Filter (BSF) we are using was designed by a Canadian non-profit named CAWST (Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology).  This organization has done an impressive design with research and development of this water filter, and they have diffused the technology in over 70 countries.

The best thing about the biosand filter is that it can be made with materials locally available in even the poorest countries.  There is a great amount of technical science in the specific design of the filter, but once the proper cement forms are made and proper gravel and sand is found, the filters are quite simple to produce, install and use.

The benefit of the BSF being reproducible with locally available materials is that then production and distribution can be sustained without assistance from NGO or other organizations.  If we want people’s access to clean water to remain after our project is gone, we have to avoid making them dependent on our assistance in maintenance and further distribution of filters.

Here is a descriptive diagram of the BSF that I have borrowed from the CAWST website  (  (Click on the picture to zoom in).

Water is poured in the top, passes through a slotted steel diffuser, into the sand.  The top 2-3 inches of sand becomes the bio-layer where predation of pathogens occurs.  Below the biolayer there is mechanical filtering as any remaining pathogens get stuck between the grains of sand.  Finally as the water seeps to the gravel layers at the bottom it flows into the exit pipe with hydraulic pressure that carries it upward.  The outlet pipe then allows the filtered water to drip into clean water containers.  A proper functioning BSF will produce 1 liter of clean water every 5-7 minutes.  If used throughout the day it can provide clean drinking water for a whole family.

That is it for today’s intro.  If you are interested in learning more about the BSF, I encourage you to visit the CAWST page on BSFs (  Next post I will tell you how we have gone about producing and distributing BSFs here in the villages.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Community Development 101

Let’s cover some basics, so that we all have a general picture of what does and does not fit in with what I am calling community development.

I am often tempted to describe community development by what it is not, but that’s not a great way to describe anything.  How could we ever start to act on something that we cannot describe?  So let’s start with what we do, and then that will be followed with a little description of what we don’t do.

We help people improve their lives.  Sounds nice right, a lot of people aim to do that.  We specifically look for communities of people that are underserved (i.e. by government or by private sector that lacks opportunity or common public services).  Then we get together with these communities and do some assessment of their community.  Good assessment needs to be about assets the community has, as well as challenges or problems.  It is often necessary to challenge a community to work back from the consequences of problems that they have stated, to determine the root causes of problems.  Assessment is a process and can take a while, and it should (more on this later). 

Good assessment will spring into negotiation of action plans.  In community development we take action only when the community itself is ready to take action.  We don’t work alone, but we don’t expect the community to work alone- we partner together. 

What do we work on?  It might be any number of things, but as a rule it needs to be challenges that the community has prioritized, and challenges we as developers have the skills and resources to help with.  In our context, there are many problems of water and sanitation borne disease, high infant and maternal mortality, and agriculture inefficiencies.  Knowing this, we do all we can to equip ourselves with the best appropriate technologies and training, so that we are ready for our part of the action.

As we work, we follow some rules:
1-    We do not do for the communities what they can do for themselves.  This will often set a community back in their initiative of improving their lifes.
2-    We do not pay for what a community can pay for.  Same reason as above.
3-    We use local knowledge and resources first, and be very careful about our technologies and products.  Everything has to be understood, often by illiterate people.  We also want neighboring communities to look and see that they can reproduce the projects in their own communities.

When one project nears completion, it’s time to start talking with the community again about ‘what’s next’.  We encourage communities to keep the ball rolling and continue with other improvements that have been on many of their minds. 

With this brief description of what we do, it hopefully makes sense now when I list what we do not do:
            -hand out free stuff, even if “they are so poor”
            -choose the projects we are going to do for the community, because “the problems are so    obvious”
-bring in a bunch of foreign stuff because “that’s the best way to solve this problem”

It is easy to be tempted to make decisions based on our foreign observations.  We must ask ourselves:
-Who are these problems being solved for? 
A- The external organization that already had heaps of resources and can leave if things get worse rather than better, or
B- the poor community that needs to learn how to start a whole succession of positive changes in which they are the planners and actors.
-Will my project’s contribution build community capacity and self-suffiency, or will it break down their capacity and foster dependency?

Community development is not automatic, not even (or especially) if you have billions and billions of dollars for the purpose of alleviating poverty.  It seems most big governments of the world are still stuck on that lesson, which leads me to conclude that community development can only be done by people that believe the poor people themselves have something to invest or sacrifice in order to bring positive change to ‘their people’.  

Some of today's blog might seem to lack tangible examples.  Don't fear, those examples will come, and those should help flesh out what I'm talking about.  Til then, bring on the questions or comments, lets get this blog rolling.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

This is it! New posts coming soon!

Hello friends, indeed you have found A's new blog.  I have plenty of things I want to write about, just have to take the time to do it.  Go ahead and bookmark this site, and check back again!