Friday, June 12, 2009

Perceptive challenges, part I

{Disclaimer for my chapter, the amazing UCalgary EWB team: I thought I would take a second to share some of the work I have been doing. This is especially for my chapter - some of you asked more about work so here's what your JF is doing!
Disclaimer for everyone else: Dorothy is an idea EWB uses to symbolize who it is we work for. Some might call her the mother who works tirelessly for her children, others might see her as the marginalized or poorest of the poor. It's a personal concept.

Disclaimer for everyone: hope this makes things more clear as to what this crazy Mzungu in Ndola is doing! Please ask questions and comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts.}

The scoop

For the last few weeks I have been working on a project I proposed to my partner, AFMAC/SHIP, to conduct a study into understanding household knowledge, assets, and skills and how they can impact the success of a SHIP intervention, specifically biosand filtration. The focus of this study is to share a new perspective based on the perceptions in the community with SHIP for structuring their training, distribution, and monitoring programmes.

SHIP is an NGO that has local Zambian staff from different backgrounds; there are former city council members - the administrators who managed the city of Ndola, and former chemists from large corporations - the scientists behind mining operations and laundry detergent paste. The staff are for all intents and purposes professional and fairly high capacity. Directly adding to their in office operations is something that an expert in HR could accomplish, perhaps, but for a three and a half month placement this is not an area I can add capacity or value.

The early field trips I took with my partner were full of questions and excitement - I was entering into a brand new situation with the intent in my heart and mind to help my organization help Dorothy - help the poorest of the poor. In the Townshisp around Ndola the poorest of the poor are very existent. A combination of incredibly high unemployment and high population density has made some of the Townships the poorest areas in the Copperbelt.

As a field worker I was helping my partner collect, process, and manage data. This was a long process with a specific focus on quantitative analysis of water quality. For all the biologists/ecologists, civil/environmental engineers, environmental scientists, and chemists out there you may know exactly what this means. For everyone else: water quality analysis involves taking samples of water and running different tests to determine the presence of certain ions as well as bacterial colonies that can cause diarrheal disease. Other data we collected was in an area much more dear and interesting to me: how humans relate to these BSF interventions.

Stepping away from quantitative and into qualitative


I began to think to myself about household perceptions. Sure the BSF can be proven to be working with the necessary quantitative analysis, but does that tell us why it is working? How do we define the success of an intervention? Is it enough to know that quantitative data points to the filter being operational? For improving SHIP's ability to serve Dorothy I began to wonder if an understanding of Dorothy's perspective on these interventions would better equip them to do so.

As I spent a few more days in the field I began to notice some reoccurring observations - both through what my eyes beheld but also in what I heard through conversation and discussion with households. Slowly these observations changed from personal to ideas that I think SHIP could benefit from knowing. SHIP runs a three tiered approach to community water and sanitation: 1) water access points and bore holes, 2) hygiene promotion and 3) bio sand filter distribution. The focus of my placement was on BSF so I began to think of a way to capture the perceptions of households on water using BSF as a focal point. AFMAC is already conducting a baseline survey which is oriented on quantitative data as well as some qualitative - what I thought I could do is conduct some research to compliment what is already being carried out (with a good degree of efficiency) with a field reality point of view on SHIP's work. I wanted to listen to Dorothy, understand Dorothy, and amplify Dorothy to all those who can listen. I believed that as a JF here for a few months that this project could add some capacity and learning to my partner.

In late May, perhaps around the 25th or so, I began to pen a proposal for a look into household perceptions with the goal of providing SHIP with a report that would complement AFMAC's (the team I am on) baseline survey as well as make recommendations for how SHIP can structure its programs taking into account household perceptions. On June 1st I submitted the proposal and upon approval I began working hard to collect data.

An approach I am taking is one that focuses in on communicating with households. Since this study is all about household perceptions I feel a lot of the relevant data will be found by directly talking with households. "Semi-structured interviews" will make up the bulk of my research - I have a mental checklist of information I think will be beneficial to understanding perceptions but I also want to get answers to the questions I will not think to ask. I leave these interviews open ended and after each day I return to my mental checklist (now digitized, oh the wonders of laptops. Thank you so very much Cherie!) and revise it. The lists from pre and post Township stay in Mapalo are similar at the core but drastically different in how they look at water and households. Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.

Conducting interviews is something I must endeavor to become more proficient at. Communication becomes more difficult when cultures collide - one way of saying a phrase from my perspective may mean something entirely different from someone else's. Using a facilitator or translator for Bemba speaking households can prove to be equally challenging. My words must be clear and understandable to the translator – he/she must understand what it is I mean by the question, try to put that into Bemba and then reinterpret the answer. Early on, even before pursuing formal research, this was a challenge. As I look for a permanent translator I am taking care to explain the purpose of the project and the meaning behind questions that are asked.

Finding people to interview can be difficult or not so difficult– my focus may be on BSF but that doesn’t mean those without BSFs don’t have anything valuable to add. To find households with BSF I consult SHIP or the local community leaders – between both sources of info it is not too difficult to find someone to speak with. I’ve had some warm and friendly receptions as well as some people who seemed disinterested. (oddly enough the one interview I thought I did the best in terms of communicating and speaking got a very sour response from the man I was speaking to. So much to learn!)

Truly "understanding" perceptions might have been an oversight on my part - but it is something I will continue to work on till I am back on Canadian soil, and then I will probably still fret over it. After interviewing a handful of people it became apparent that there are trends in the way people view water and the BSF - each had their own unique motivation and history thought. Human behaviour is a tricky thing to analyze - there's a long road to walk in terms of this project and I'm already sprinting.

So, you may be asking – “Patrick, you crazy Mzungu, how is this development!?”

Development isn’t just about digging wells and implementing programs or infrastructure. The physical manifestation of development – the indicators so often cited by donors – often take the shape of x number of wells sunk or something similar. But development as I see it isn’t solely about wells. Looking at the ground level, the field, the township – Mapalo, Mackenzie, George - the act of boreholes and filters being installed in and of its self is not development. Seeing these interventions used in an effective and functional way that reduces poverty is an idea I have as real development. Remember, these are my thoughts - tell me what you think.

Allow me to elaborate with a hypothetical situation – say an NGO installs some perfectly technically sound hand pump design in a community that one hundred households have access to. From my perspective this doesn’t indicate development – how many houses actually use the well? If it breaks can it be repaired (hopefully without the Township running back to the NGO)? Is there an actual decrease in disease? Was this well sunk in the best geographic location for the town? - and so on. If the project and intervention are not planned in a way that takes into account the unique needs and perceptions within the community will success be impacted? Is it possible for an NGO to balance donor requirements, project restrictions, and field level realities (ie household needs + perceptions)?

So while the fruits of all my labor here in Ndola wont physically manifest its self in the form of a well or a knock out sanitation training session I feel that it will give SHIP something new to consider as they continue to upscale and restructure their programs. It’s a long term process – but it is my most sincere hope that my endeavors will help SHIP do development in Townships for Dorothy by listening to Dorothhy.

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