Saturday, February 26, 2011

Women’s Day 2011

 March 8 has been named Women’s Day in this country.  After some of my recent blog posts you’ll understand that this national day is something we are going to be paying close attention to.  Like you, we want to know what Women’s Day means here. 

The only plan we have heard is that one of the local NGOs that deals expressly with women’s issues, is going to host a women’s celebration here in our city, and host some 500 women from outlying villages to come in for the meal and party.  What will this be like?  We also wait anxiously, and hope we learn something to report on later!

Be in prayer that this Women’s Day would be safe from any insurgent threats.  They generally do not like any projects that benefit women, because it calls them away from their standard roles of staying in the house all the time.  Pray for something really great to happen on this day.

Polio days 2011

 The country-wide polio campaign is ongoing in 2011.  This is one of the few countries in the world where cases of polio are still found.  Eradicating polio in the whole world is one of the goals of big development strategists that wrote the Millenium Development Goals.  People get excited about this one because the effects of polio are devastating, immunizations have erased it from most of the globe, and it seems simple enough to spread that vaccine further and see the disease eradicated completely. 

In this country UNICEF leads the way in implementing the polio vaccine campaign.  They have enormous grants from foreign governments to eradicate polio in this rugged country where 75% of the inhabitants are living in small isolated villages.  It takes an immense effort and a huge number of people to spread the vaccine campaign across the whole country, and they attempt to do it all in 3 days each year.  This year’s campaign is March 13-15.

I’ve become friends with the leader of UNICEF here, and had a talk with him last week about the upcoming campaign.  He told me that the donors of past years have put a lot of pressure on finishing the eradication of polio in this country this year, because they are tired of paying such a high price for the effort here.  My friend is concerned that this year will be no different than that past ones, the problems of corruption and insecurity will again plague their efforts to do such a huge task in 3 days.  In order to spread the campaign across the entire population it is necessary for vaccinators to go province by province, district by district, valley by valley, village by village, door to door, to every child under age 5. 

To move freely through some districts the vaccinators will have to negotiate with both legitimate and shadow governors.  To access some valleys they may have to pay heavy bribes to the insurgents in control, and still be in high security risk.  To enter the villages and homes they have to convince suspicious elders that they are there to help their people, and earn permission to deal with women and children.  To actually give the vaccine to every child under 5, however, is the greatest challenge of all, because any child that can, will flee and hide when they see syringes come out!  Seriously though, it is hard for some families to trust that the vaccinators have good, not malicious intentions.  If one child is hidden, does not receive the vaccination, and later gets polio because some bordering territories also have it, the disease is not eradicated. 

Be in prayer from March 13-15 for all the thousands of people involved in administering the polio campaign across the country.  It is a massive, massive endeavor, with huge challenges, but the payoff of success would be worth every dollar put into the campaign.  Pray that this country would soon be free of a disease that many nations have all but forgotten.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sick resilience

A horrible crime took place by our local staff, on our property just 3 days ago, but talk to our local staff today and you wouldn’t detect that such a thing had occurred.  You wouldn’t know, because the victim, and perpetrator have both carried on with their daily activities like nothing happened.  You also wouldn’t know, because the crime itself has been drowned out by hate-filled gossip.  This pursuit of justice and security, amidst this emotional train wreck, has been one of the hardest situations we have worked through in our years here.

The victim of the story is a woman that my wife has already written some posts about on her blog.  My wife calls her Angel KhAla.  She helps clean 2 of our foreign teammates’ houses, as well as our house.  One of our teammates is on holiday; their house is empty.  Angel KhAla was cleaning in their house Saturday when the guard (employed by that family) in that yard came in, pulled her headscarf over her mouth and eyes, beat her, raped her, and beat her some more.  When she finally escaped him, she went to our neighbor’s house to ask for help.  Our neighbor lady was home, and she immediately tended to the bleeding cuts on KhAla’s face, and tried to calm her.  Our neighbor welcomed her to stay as long as she needed, and KhAla stayed most of the afternoon- secluding herself in the bathroom, sobbing through her story with our neighbor, and sleeping on her living room floor, curled up in a ball. 

Soon after KhAla arrived at our neighbor’s house, the husband of the family conferenced with our team leader, and they went to confront the perpetrator, whom I will call KM.  KM was shocked about the confrontation, clearly he thought that KhAla would retreat home, not telling anyone about the assault.  KM's demeanor ran the whole gamut of a guilty person: nervousness, excuses and topic changes, cross-accusations, angry statements, and outright threats.  For two hours our teammates attempted to make him give up his keys and leave the premises permanently.  He refused.  Our teammates decided not to call the police before consulting other local staff to consider all the possible repercussions of involving the police in this type of issue.  The terms they issued to KM is that he had 3 days, then he would have to take his 2 weeks of annual leave, and not come back.

I thought the news of the assault was bad enough, but then the inability to get KM away from our homes made it worse.  Then it got worse yet as we began to gather counsel from other local staff on how to handle situations like this.  By and large, the opinion of the local staff was that we needed to suppress the situation, and treat the perpetrator like he was innocent of this offense.  This was really hard to wade through, because their motives were mixed.  On one hand suppressing the situation would protect KhAla from being killed by a male family member, to preserve family honor.  On the other hand, there was this underlying message that this man’s job was worth more than the beating and rape of some woman.  In the last couple days we have repeatedly caught our staff talking about the issue in this regard, and we’ve even caught some of our male staff confronting KhAla and telling her she should not have said anything.  Yes, I’m furious in response to this, but it is true that it would bring KhAla a lot of danger if we called the police or started disciplining all the staff that are assisting in this unjust treatment of this woman.  So what do we do?

Today was day 3, and KM knew it.  We’ve all spent a lot of time praying of this, and we asked you to do the same.  Did you expect answers?  We were dependent on them.  The team members that confronted KM in the beginning met him again, and he was again full of cross-accusations of KhAla.  He claimed that earlier in her life she worked as a prostitute.  He claimed that several former staff had “used her services.”  He claimed that her sins were so great, she had to be corrected, and that in fact he had caught her stealing in the house.  Finally something in the stories matched up, because KhAla had recounted that while he was beating and raping her he was telling her what an awful woman she was, and how horrible her sin was.  I think that in a way, these horrible accusations from KM helped us draw a line between an evidenced fact that we needed to act on, and a load of garbage gossip that we would perhaps never unravel.  The evidenced fact was that he beat her.  My wife saw the cuts and bruises all over her body.  The rest of what we were dealing with was words, and they were almost as lethal, but it was impossible to prove them or disprove them.  What we had was the evidence of an assault on a woman, and that was grounds to terminate KM.  KM and his male allies wanted to cover over this with gossip, but we had to make the statement that there is never a justifiable reason to beat a woman, never.  At the end of the day KM turned over his key, and left.

What happens now?  We will see.  The risk of further violence is not over.  We’ve beefed our security measures, and need to stay home more, to make sure KM does not retaliate on us.  KhAla needs to be very careful as well.  She was willing to come back to work the day after that assault happened.  As destroyed as she was after the incident, you wouldn’t know it the next morning, and that resilience was perplexing.  Why did she feel she had to be so strong?  Why didn’t she take the week off like we all offered her?  How can she pretend like nothing happened, especially when all the local staff hate her for speaking up and getting a man fired?  She keeps going like everyone supports and loves her, but they are most certainly plotting how they can get her back for this.  While her future is troubled, KM will probably suffer little effect from this.  He lost his job, but because we did not file any case, he will make everyone in the community believe that we wrongly fired him over the lies of the woman he calls our whore.  He’ll protect his name in this society, he’ll bounce back, he’s a man. 

This whole event has opened a new window of insight into the troubles in this place.  I did not know that the disrespect of women here went this deep.  I did not know that a woman who suffered that type of abuse could show up the next day like it didn’t happen.  I didn’t know that the rest of our staff could also abandon the victim because it was a woman, and insist that she and the crime against her be forgotten.  It makes me wonder how many people I interact with here have suffered or committed crimes such as this, and just keep living like it never happened.  Oh God what is left of these war-torn people... sick resilience, seared consciences, scarred souls, leathery hearts.  Please have mercy.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gender issues in WASH

I’m not an expert on gender issues.  I took one graduate course on gender and development and it opened my eyes to the subject, but I still understand very little about how to work against gender issues. 

By gender issue, I mean something that is unfair for women, or worse, an outright violation of women’s rights.  Perhaps it would seem better to call this a women’s issue.  No, I would recommend we use the term gender issue, because the problem is not solely with women, that they are denied so many rights in this land.  The problem is that both genders are messed up in their God-given roles of male and female- serving and caring about one another. 

WASH stands for water, advocacy, sanitation and hygiene.  This applies to both women and men, but it applies differently, because genders here are quite separated the majority of the time.  In an agricultural village here, men do not hang around the house or the village at all, they are in the fields, the mosque, or the bazaar for all the daylight hours.  Women do all domestic duties: care for children, care for animals, care for gardens, wash clothes, wash dishes, wash children, chase chickens, weave rugs, knit socks, stitch clothes, make bread, make meals, and the list goes on (and you wondered why they have big families- children make good helpers here).  So when we come to a village to talk about water, sanitation and hygiene, we need to talk to the ones who fetch the water, wipe babies’ bottoms, and wash childrens’ hands- you guessed it, the women.

I’ve insisted before that rural and community development must be more about behavior and belief change, and less about building stuff.  For this reason our first WASH intervention is a participatory hygiene and health course for women.  If women attend the course and apply what they are learning as real lifestyle changes, we reward them with a water filter (read BSF posts below).  In the course they learn about the importance of clean water, and how it can change the whole course of family life for those who have suffered a lot of diarhoea.  This part of our WASH work is good (I think).  But in evaluating the effect of the BSFs (water filters) on life, we have realized that we’ve walked right into a gender issue.

We focused on women because they do all the water and sanitation chores, and can pass good behaviors on to their children and ensure that their children are getting clean water.  We did not predict what would happen by leaving men out of the initial WASH intervention.  Actually we did not leave them out entirely, but we did not involve them until it was time to install the BSFs in their houses.  Suddenly one day we show up with a 200lb blue concrete block that their wives and us want to put in their house.  We need their help to lug this massive thing that they don’t understand, and then we show them we’re going to load another 150 pounds of sand and rock into the thing, which guarantees that they will not easily move the thing ever again.  No men that we know of have outright resisted it, but their passive, unknowledgeable acceptance has had another consequence- numerous men have been unwilling to provide for their families need for a pit or composting latrine. 

Let’s be honest, men here do not need a latrine as much as women do.  I said above they are seldom home, and they can more easily get away with peeing behind the house when they are home.  It is a much harder situation for women who do not have a latrine.  Mothers without a latrine often let their babies and children toilet in their dirt yard, where the rest of their siblings play.  What is a woman to do about toileting and menstruation if she has no private latrine?  The answer will shock you- many women do not toilet at all while the sun is up.  They hold it.  The number of kidney stones and twisted bowels here is sickening, and this is a big contributor to it. 

Suddenly water filters seems to pale in comparison with the importance of latrines and sanitation huh?  I wish we would have planned the way we did our water intervention (the BSFs) around the goal of mobilizing whole families to shape up their whole water and sanitation system.  Yes it doesn’t benefit men as much so it made sense to focus on women, but now we need the men to strongly support the initiative to build latrines, so that clean water is not useless because of all the filth of open defecation.  By focusing and delivering to women, we have allowed some men to say to our project women’s team, “okay, if this is a women’s problem, you fix it for them, it doesn’t concern me.”  Pretty distorted isn’t it?  Ideally, focusing on women will lead to empowerment, which gathers the recognition and affirmation of men who suddenly see women as more capable, more valuable.  Well, I guess it doesn’t always work out as ideally as we’d hope. 

Send us your ideas and suggestions on how to proceed!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Poverty. How do you define it, what is it?

Here are some definitions of poverty, offer your feedback if you wish...

“Poverty is experienced by people who are limited in choice.  Economic poverty is limited ability to meet basic needs.  Spiritual poverty is limited knowledge of God.  Poverty dehumanizes people, so that they believe that the problems that they face need to be solved by somebody else”  Francis Njoroge – Kenya

“Poverty is powerlessness.  It is about people being unable to meet their own basic human needs.  Most often this is due to lack of opportunity in a society marked by oppression and injustice which has led to disempowerment.  The poor and non-poor are people created in the image of God, who are designed to meet their own socioeconomic, personal, social, cultural, and spiritual needs.  Poverty is powerlessness to fulfill that God-given role.”  Rene Padilla, Argentina

“Poverty is one of humanity’s biggest problems.  It is often a result of social corruption, war, physical or economic disaster, or personal irresponsibility.  Its underlying cause is sin, usually committed against those affected by it, and not by themselves.  It is a painful, fearful, hopeless and vulnerable way of life due to exploitation, isolation, lack of choice and powerlessness.”  Saul Cruz-Ramos – Mexico

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Planning for round 3 of Biosand Filters

 If you have read the previous posts about Biosand Filters (BSFs) then you know that in round 1 we distributed BSFs for participants in a health and hygiene course led by our female facilitator team.  Round 2 will begin in mid-March, and in this round we will train village representatives in BSFs installation and monitoring, and subsidize them in selling BSFs in their villages.

To be honest, I have often cringed when thinking about the round 1 incentive program and the round 2 subsidy program.  I cringe because I fear that our good intentions to increase access to clean water (and introduce simple local technology to do so) will be sabotaged by dependency.  We have to be very careful when we make our NGO the source and supplier and motivator of the spread of these BSFs, because if people see this is “our” project rather then something of their own, then it stops as soon as we stop.  For this reason I have been pushing that before we start round 2, we also prepare to launch round 3 at the same time. 

Round 3 of the BSF filter will be building up a private market of BSFs; an independent market that is sustainable after we cease incentive and subsidy programs.  Does this make sense?  I thought that our team would quickly understand this, but it has taken weeks to convince them that this possible and something we should pursue.  My local colleague Zeke and I have gone round and round on this matter.  Zeke is very happy to see us move on to the subsidy program.  When I ask him what happens when we are done subsidizing he says that we should not stop subsidizing until everyone in our target villages have a BSF.  I called him out on the fact that our project’s broader goal is to encourage development across the whole province, and nation if possible, and not do things in our target villages that are impossible for other communities to replicate without NGO inputs.  Round and round we have gone, but I think I made a breakthrough last week when I identified the difference in our perspective on the project.

Zeke’s perspective on the project is tied tightly around the production and initial distribution of the filters, and for good reason.  Setting up a factory, testing the first products to ensure quality, and getting 700+ filters distributed in 9 months was not a small task.  My perspective, on the other hand, comes from entering the project 9 months after the start, and seeing the strength of the factory and the market capability of the BSFs.  Without any advertising, 31 BSFs were purchased at actual cost, by individuals without any NGO association.  This fact says to me that we need to jump on the chance to stimulate this market so that BSFs will be providing clean water for villagers here long after our project stops distributing them.

How do we, an NGO, stimulate a private market?  Good question, and honestly I do not know how we do it, but it’s one of my assignments, so we’re going to see what we can do!  I am genuinely interested in your feedback on the following!

The main points I believe we need to work on are:
1-  Maintaining the value of the BSF, province-wide.
2-  Advertising and demonstrating the BSF in public.
3-  Training the BSF factory masons to build more than products, to build lasting change.

Here’s some thoughts on each of these main points:

1-    Maintaining the value of the BSF, province-wide.

I shared in an earlier post that we have learned that monitoring and supporting BSF recipients is absolutely essential in order for the recipients to actually use and benefit from the filter.  Without this monitoring and support, many families could soon forget how to use the filter, or not know what to do if it gets plugged with silt (a common and simply resolved issue), and soon, rather than enjoying the life-changing benefits of clean water, they are frustrated about a 300 lb piece of functionless concrete furniture that some NGO left in their house.  If this becomes the experience of many families that receive BSFs, pretty soon the whole province will see the BSF as worthless.  How many BSFs do you think the factory would sell privately if that happened?
So there is a need to maintain the value of the BSF, but this is complicated because we are not the only NGO with a BSF project in the province.  Unfortunately the other NGOs are “big boys” that tend to use their massive budgets to litter whole districts with free products rather than to invest in training and support to encourage and sustain positive changes.  Last month in a WASH sector meeting (all NGOs in the area working in WASH meet to discuss topics and make sure we don’t step on each others’ toes.) I heard two of the big boys report their plans to do massive and rapid distributions of BSFs in 2011.  Since this time the question has been: how do we reduce the risk that these wide distributions will destroy chances for a sustainable private market?  My response has been to increase our NGOs role in the WASH sector meeting so that our detailed reports of our work on the BSFs will travel to the headquarters of the big boys’ NGOs.  I’m also searching for other contacts in the capital city that can help advocate for our example to be considered as best practice, which would push the big boys to slow down their plans and add monitoring to their budgets.  This is a very new role for me, but I think it’s great that this project has a strong enough foundation and reputation that we can influence the work of other, bigger NGOs.

2-  Advertising and demonstrating the BSF in public.

            The facilitator team is enthused about advertising.  This week we brainstormed a bunch of ideas and divided responsibilities for preparing the different advertisements.  I am supposed to oversee the whole thing to make sure our logos and messages are consistent, but it will be hard to keep up because these guys are movers!  By late-March we should have launched the following advertisements:
-       Teachers from every school in the area will be gathered for training and demonstrations of the BSF, then BSFs will be set up in every school, and student leaders will be appointed to maintain the filters.
-       Leaders of all local clinics will be gathered for training and demonstration of the BSF.  Responsive leaders might receive a BSF for their clinic.
-       Small billboards will be put up at the 4 main entrances to town.
-       BSF and hygiene promotion posters will go up around the bazaar.
-       TV commercials will air on local TV, including video of beneficiary testimonies.
-       A radio drama about dirty and clean water will air on regional radio.
-       And if I get my way, we will also do some “live informercials” in the bazaar!  The team is still skeptical about this idea, but I hope they will soon accept because 2 days of every week many people come into the bazaar from outlying areas, and these would be perfect opportunities to demonstrate the BSF publicly. 
Kinda neat huh?  I’ll see what I can do to show you some of the end results.

3-  Train the BSF masons to build more than products, to build lasting change.

All of the above advertising methods will be aimed at encouraging people to buy BSFs for themselves, for their own benefit.  We believe that if the factory masons get enough private orders, they will be able to continue production without any inputs from our NGO, which would probably be enough for the community to take notice, and other competing factories to start.
Before competing factories start, we have to be sure that we have impressed upon the factory masons that what sells the BSFs is not the pretty blue color that they paint on them, but the fact that the filter provides clean water for their family and reduces sicknesses.  If the future plan is for the NGOs to back away from the monitoring and support role (in order to allow the private market to continue independently), the factory masons need to be prepared to take on that role for themselves. 
It will be interesting in the future to see how private buyers manage to keep their investment in the BSF functioning for their family.  There’s such a stark difference in how people here handle private purchases as compared to free handouts.  If a free handout stops working after a week, the attitude is, “who cares, the NGO can bring me another one.”  But if a private purchase stops working, the buyer jumps on his donkey and goes into town to argue with the seller about getting a refund.  Prepare yourselves factory masons, this could get interesting!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Henri Nouwen

Today I am posting my favorite Henri Nouwen quote for you.  I keep this quote around, because it's a good reminder and a solid challenge to take a step back and see the bigger picture of what it means to be here among these people...

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.  It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.  Still, it is not as simple as it seems.  My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.   But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn't be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them but you truly love them.”