Monday, July 20, 2009

Is there something there?

After spending a few days in the field working with some colleagues on the first implementation of our new monitoring tool I find myself sitting in the office. If one listens to the murmurs of the background they will discover the bland wallpaper of vacant worship music has lay claim to the sonic atmosphere - drifting drifting with its lack of enthusiasm, not too forcefully, but almost antagonistically throughout the corridors of the office. The field abounds in energy - conversations, laughter, and interactions with coworkers and households / informants alike. However today's work takes shape in the form of meetings, meetings away from the townships and within the office walls. Down time - waiting to speak to a colleague about an upcoming meeting. Perhaps hopping on the mini bus to Mapalo would have been the better alternative for today's programmes. Regardless the office is my environment and I am today working on the plan for tomorrow's RDC meeting - what might a network for monitoring and maintenance look like? How might the community be best leveraged to work with NGOs instead of under.

Communities are dynamic and full of individuals, households, interactions..., life- but what is a community? In the physical sense it is a collection of households. Thinking a little broader it could be considered an organization of humans, who are not only interconnected to varying degrees, but also live together in similar social, political, economic, ecological/environmental, and cultural contexts... circumstances.

Communities - for all the engineers out there - are perhaps very complex and very dynamic systems. Ones which are always in a state of flux - a situation where changes are not always apparent or measurable.

The composition of informal and formal leaders, informal and formal markets, churches, clinics, households of all shapes and sizes, physical roads, social roads, and environment all impact the behavior of individuals as part of the community. Internal and external factors alter the livelihoods of those who dwell within.

For example - one community I visited has not enough trees or land for internal charcoal production. Charcoal is an essential fuel for many households - it provides warmth for cooking, warming water, and warming bodies. Charcoal is made by chopping down trees, entombing them in soil, and lighting a fire... since tress are the number one asset in production they should play a role, right? Partially. It would seem that prices are a lot more complex than that - very dynamic as one charcoal salesperson put it. So when these charcoal sales people ride to town with their charcoal in tow they sell at an inflated price to cover the distance. However, some enterprising youngsters realized that the price the sales people were selling for was well above markup - these young men went to town to buy their own charcoal and sell it at a profit and at a cheaper price than the original vendors. The result? These youngsters had a fledgling business but could not handle the demand, had fights with the original vendors, and in general made a mess. This community, despite being geographically further away from the origin has the cheapest charcoal around. The original vendors have cut their prices, which means they now make less money to take back to their own communities to spend... which interferes with someone else's livelihood and so on and so on. Since charcoal is the primary fuel for most people in this community, due to the lack of trees, the price and availability of it can drastically alter many house's livelihoods.

{I say interfere as a means to convey unexpected change - for positive or negative.}

Development projects which are enacted at the community level have great potential to cause more than ripples in the fabric of a community. Even if programmes are focused on one aspect, such as household water treatment, the repercussions throughout the community may become large waves. Small projects can rock a big boat, even capsize it.

For consideration - a hypothetical BSF scenario (it may be a bit ridiculous, but it's an illustration):
1) BSF are introduced into a community which has a functional chlorine business and water kiosk. Many people in the community presently use shallow wells, however some also will use a water kiosk or a hand pump well.
2) Some people who use the kiosks or handpump are given BSFs. People who use the handpump and do not have a filter begin to question the safety of a kiosk or handpump after seeing their neighbours filter handpump water.
3) People who presently buy Kiosk water also receive the BSF. Upon hearing how useful it is they begin to use surface water and filter it - using the kiosk money elsewhere. Let's say they start buying more veggies from the market.
4) As BSF reach a large number in the community the sale of water kiosk water and chlorine begins to drop. Eventually these businesses do not become profitable and the store stops stocking chlorine - this leaves those who depend on Chlorine in a shortage scenario. Eventually the sale of kiosk water drops to the point where maintenance and labour costs are not covered - kiosk slows down and kiosk people lose their jobs.
5) What happens next?

In the Masala markets a man once stated that his village was encouraged to grow a certain crop, this however flooded the market with this crop and limited the profitability of it for those who traditionally grow it.

Communities are a collection of households which share various contexts and circumstances. Households are a collection of individuals. Actions taken by both insiders and outsiders can drastically impact a community and those who dwell within. Communities also impact other communities... economically, environmentally, socially, ect . . . The actions of a community are difficult to map and even more so to change.

Behaviour Change appears to be a key part of development - but what behaviours do we want to "instill" in others? What community or household behaviour can we truly say needs to be changed? What are the repercussions of changing behavior? (I once heard from a prof that if everyone in Alberta recycled everything that there would be a net negative effect in terms of pollution.) Is the change sustainable? What material "factors" are part of this change? Is it right to change behaviour? What will the negative impact of this behaviour change be? What damage or growth will the programme cause?

Every time an outsider sets foot in a community there is an echo -will the echo to result in singing or an avalanche?

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