Monthly Archives: June 2010

Community Outreach #1

My teammates and I held our first community education outreach this past week in Buwaiswa.  The gathering focused on malaria prevention and safe water. For the issue of malaria, we stressed the need to use mosquito nets. Although most villagers know of or have used nets, many families feel that the nets are an excessive expense. To combat this common sentiment, our team emphasized the large amounts of money spent on transportation, medicine, and doctor visits for each malaria case. We also stressed that families should consider the number of family members who experience malaria (usually everyone) each year and how many times each person contracts malaria (up to 5-6 times) each year. When all of these costs are considered, it becomes clear that mosquito nets are a worthy investment and can help save villagers money in the long run.

To ensure that mosquito net distribution is sustainable, we also identified a woman in the community to serve as the net distributor. This is crucial so that even after our team leaves Buwaiswa this summer, villagers will still have access to subsidized nets.

The second half of the outreach focused on safe water and the use of WaterGuard, a chlorine substance that purifies water for drinking. During orientation, we learned that it is often difficult to sell WaterGuard because villagers believe that water from the well is perfectly safe. Therefore, I was a little worried about how to pitch the idea of WaterGuard to the community. After describing the Safe Water Chain and the need to ensure water cleanliness from the well to the drinking cup, we demonstrated how to use WaterGuard. The outreach attendees watched attentively as we filled a jug with well water and added a small capful of the WaterGuard substance. And then the final test…..we poured the final product into a drinking cup and took a sip! What happened next was the best part of my day. Slowly, members of the community walked up to the front and poured their cups full of the purified water. An elderly woman filled her cup up twice. Kids sitting in the crowd ran home to get their cups and joined in on the taste test. In the end, we sold more than 12 bottles of WaterGuard – a great way to kick off our first community outreach!

PS: I am about to watch the USA-Ghana World Cup Game – it’s a great time to be in Africa!

Hello Texas Capitol…

Having lived in Austin for three years now, I’ve grown used to seeing the Texas Capitol building almost every day as I drive around the city. Until this past week however, I’d never actually stepped inside the distinguished building that serves as the seat of Texas government. Unlike many of my fellow students at LBJ, my road to public policy school came not through working on campaigns or prior studies of government affairs. Most of my experience has involved non-profit work in places far less glamorous than the Capitol: the crowded halls of an Atlanta high school, the desolate blocks of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the living rooms of AmeriCorps clients who were trying to find jobs and healthcare.

So on Wednesday when I first stepped through the mammoth doors into the East Lobby, I was mostly excited, somewhat intimidated, and completely fascinated to enter into a new realm of public affairs. My outsider perspective of the inside workings tends to range from cynical despair that it’s all corrupt, to hopeful reverence for the beauty of democracy – so I was curious to see how the real dynamics of the Capitol would compare to my notions.

My only assignment for my visit on last Wednesday was a pretty simple one: attend the Senate Education committee’s hearing on issues in special education and be able to report back with notes on the topics that were relevant to our current campaigns at the ACLU. Given that this was an interim hearing, my boss and I were surprised to find that the room was already standing-room-only when we arrived – seems a lot of people had a vested interest in this topic. Later I would learn that Texas ranks 49th in the U.S. in providing for special education needs, so it’s understandable that so many people are advocating for our state to do a better job on this front.

I crammed into the line of people standing against the back wall of the room and listened as the committee heard testimony from numerous Texas Education Agency officials and professionals in the education and health care fields. The discussions spanned across a variety of concerns regarding special education, but of particular interest to me were the ones related to school-to-prison pipeline issues. Parents often learn the hard way that special needs children are referred to disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEPs) at more than twice the rate of their population in the student body – paving the way for students who should be receiving individualized education and appropriate treatment to instead be funneled into the criminal justice system. Keeping kids IN school and OUT of the criminal justice system is what fighting the school-to-prison pipeline is all about –- and I’m proud to be working with the ACLU and other organizations to fight that good fight.

As far as my first impression of the hustle and bustle of the Capitol, the slow pace of the interim season doesn’t offer much to gauge thus far. No exciting walk-&-talks with politicians wheeling deals just yet – perhaps those scenes will come to life once the next session kicks off in January. On Wednesday the most lively scene was seemingly inside the one hearing I was attending, where I’m glad to say that some of my greatest ideals of democracy were actually being validated.

Though it was disheartening to hear about the sorry state of many aspects of special education, watching the public testimony part of the hearing was pretty inspiring because you’ve got to respect a government that will allow an open floor to its people. If you’re a citizen with something to say, then all you have to do is fill out a quick card and the committee will cede the microphone to you for three minutes of speaking your mind. So I got to hear from a woman with Down syndrome talk about starting her own business… and a boy with autism share about being bullied at school… and from incredible parents who dedicate their lives to caring for their special needs children. There is no guarantee that the Senate committee will actually make any policy changes after hearing their stories, but I am thankful to know that at least for a few hours their voices were heard – and hopefully better legislation and better practices will come about because of that.

Helping achieve development through environmental sustainability

It has been one month already! I feel very fortunate to be working with so many dedicated and talented professionals who come from all over the world and are so passionate about preserving the earth’s resources for future generations. Since I arrived, I have been working on several different UNEP programs that engage the business and industry sectors to promote sustainable production and consumption. UNEP works closely with the private sector to encourage the sustainable use of natural resources. In addition, these strategies and practices work to promote economic growth, as well as support the UN’s Millennium Development Goals working to eradicate world poverty, hunger and disease. In particular, UNEP’s mission focuses on supporting and building capacity in Africa and other developing countries.

Last week I attended a workshop to increase collaboration for initiatives to incorporate sustainable production and consumption (SCP) into development goals. Representatives from developing country environmental ministries and development and donor agencies attended the two-day workshop. Challenges were discussed, including population growth, quality of life, lack of legal framework, water resources and buildings/infrastructure, but opportunities and initiatives were also highlighted, such as national green growth plans and implementation of voluntary environmental conservation activities.

I am beginning to appreciate how great a role SCP plays in addressing the root of many of our environmental challenges, from preserving biodiversity to tackling climate change; it’s a win-win strategy that also contributes to economic growth and the priority development goals of some of the world’s poorest countries.

Efficiency isn’t everything

I’ve been at my internship for almost a month now, so a lot has been going on. I attend village bank formation and repayment meetings to learn how the microcredit process works. I work with our program partner, Multicredit, to design business chats for women that are both informative and engaging (and they have to be engaging, especially when many women have a child on their back demanding their attention).

Local women build towers with gum drops and toothpicks in order to practice teamwork and communication

I help with all the little details that go into offering classes to loan recipients, like buying massive amounts of yarn and hauling it through the streets for knitting classes. On Saturdays, I help run leadership workshops (one of my favorite activities was teaching them how to make skyscrapers out of marshmellows, gum drops and toothpicks in order to practice teamwork and communication…and then, bonus, we got to eat them afterward).

One interesting conflict I’ve encountered in my work so far is the clash between efficiency and mission. Coming into the internship with my U.S. mindset, I tend to want to get things done the fastest and most efficient way. But sometimes that is not the best way to support DiscoverHope’s ultimate mission, which is to support the multifaceted development of women in poverty.

For example, following our business chats, we assign women some sort of homework…something practical like giving their business a name to differentiate themselves from their competitors, or designing propaganda materials like flyers or business cards. But because women have so many responsibilities (running their small business, caring for their household, attending community meetings, etc.) it is difficult for them to find the time to complete extra homework on top of everything else.

My coworkers and I have brainstormed two different strategies to encourage women to do their homework. One is to take advantage of the repayment meetings that are already scheduled for their communal banks and spend half an hour going over the homework and completing it as a group. The other is to periodically visit each woman in her house and give her individual support as she completes her assignments. Since there are over 75 loan recipients to date, the first method certainly sounds more efficient.

But that is not all there is to the decision. We also have to consider Cajamarcan culture. Here individual attention and a personalized invitation go a long way (before every leadership workshop we drop off personalized invitations, door-to-door, asking women to attend…and it works). We also learn a lot more about the women and their obstacles in their home and business by taking the time to visit them. Furthermore, experience with healthy household campaigns in the past proved that the campaigns were most successful when accompanied by follow-up visits to individual homes. So we have decided to use the home visit strategy and see how it works out.

I notice this same conflict on a daily level in a less obvious sense. At the Hope House (the community center in Cajamarca) we work looong days. We spend a lot of the day having conversations with women who pop into the office about their thoughts and needs, about how they think classes are going, and in short, taking the time to hear them out…no matter how long that takes.

So, for example, we could have an efficient 15 minute meeting with our literacy teacher to discuss how to better evaluate students’ progress…or…we could have a 1 hour and  15 minute meeting in which we listen to the teacher and learn about her other difficulties: how some students don’t attend class on a regular basis; how an indigenous woman won’t wear her glasses because she’s ashamed; or how the students are getting headaches from working in a dark room in their classmate’s house, but they are afraid to move to a different meeting place because they don’t want to offend their host.

The subleties and intimate knowledge of what women are thinking is very important; more important running a fast-paced, “efficient” operation. Because the core mission of DiscoverHope is to support women’s journey of personal and entrepreneurial development, no matter how long that journey may be.

Watershed Development Programs in India: Impacts on Equity and Resource Management

At the moment, I am calculating a water balance (rainfall versus water use) on a watershed and farm level in a village in the state of Gujarat, India to determine the efficiency of the central government of India’s Watershed Development Program. In general, the Watershed Development Program is designed to help poor farmers in villages in semi-arid regions of India. The program aims to generate jobs through building rain water harvesting structures, promoting gender and caste equity, and advocating natural and water resource management policy.

As part of an interdisciplinary team that includes hydrologists, economists, rural development experts, and social scientists, we hope to generate awareness of the affects (positive or negative) the watershed development has on the livelihoods of the rural poor.

Having a scientific background (hydrogeology), my way of thinking about solving problems has changed. For example, development programs are not and cannot be a purely scientific exercise. I have had the great fortune here at GIDR to go out to villages and talk to heads of villages, tribes, and various caste members of how the government’s water policies affect them. Interacting with various groups and stakeholders (in different languages no less) has proven to be challenging and rewarding at the same time – human impact from government policies and climate change are clearly expressed.

Being in the semi-arid region of western India has proven to be the best experience when it comes to the issues of climate change, rural development, and water policy.  It provides a challenging task of combining natural phenomenons with socioeconomic conditions of a unique population. Gujarat is a unique state unto itself as it contains vast deserts, dense forests, highly urbanized areas, rolling hills, and millions of acres of farmland. As a result, development strategies change throughout the state.

Getting to know Buwaiswa

This past week was very eventful here in Buwaiswa. We started the week by holding focus groups for the men and women of the village. These meetings give us an opportunity to hear from the villagers about what health issues are most important to them and what they would like us to focus on during our time in Buwaiswa. Malaria, worms, diarrhea and vision problems seem to be common issues among both groups. Misperceptions about HIV and family planning also seem to be prevalent.

In addition to the focus groups, we began to conduct household surveys. Our goal is to complete about 35 of the total 350 households in the village. Although these surveys are very time consuming, they provide much needed information about how people in Buwaiswa live. We ask questions such as “How far away is your water source? What meals do you regularly prepare for your family? Has anyone in your family ever suffered from malaria?” These surveys give us an opportunity not only to learn more about our village but also to get to know more of the villagers on a personal level. I am looking forward to compiling all of this information and using it to help plan our education outreaches in the coming weeks!

In other news, we (myself and the 5 other interns who I live with) were kicked out of our house in Buwaiswa! Don’t worry – it’s only temporary. We realized on Friday that we are not the only ones living in our house. A group of bats also reside in our home. Because bats can carry many diseases, we had to move out all of our belongings for the weekend so that the house could be fumigated. Hopefully this will scare away the bats! I am actually more concerned about the other critters. Each night I wake up to lizards, frogs (and maybe mice??) scurrying around my room. Definitely not my favorite thing about Buwaiswa! At least my mosquito net provides some protection 🙂 That is all for now….wereba (“goodbye” in Lusoga).

Hello from India!

Good evening from the 113 degree heat of Ahmedabad, India. I am interning with the Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR) where I am evaluating watershed development programs that were initiated by the central government to sustain productivity of dry and semi-arid regions of the country by adopting more efficient production and conservation techniques. This research effort, undertaken at GIDR for evaluating these watershed development programs, is known as the “Forum of Watershed Research and Policy Dialogue”. The forum focuses on watershed development sustainability, gender and caste equity, and democratization in rural India.

At the moment I am primarily conducting field investigations to determine the spatial distribution of groundwater withdrawal scenarios by farmers in select rural watersheds, (2) collaborating with an evaluation team in analyzing the collected field data and determining the program efficiency on three scales (household level, farm level, and watershed level), and (3) evaluating the impact of technology on the economic welfare of households in the select watersheds.

We basically want to answer the question of  “What impact do watershed development activities have on rural areas, especially groundwater resources, agricultural production, and socioeconomic conditions?” The ultimate goal is to help policymakers create guidelines for the watershed development programs in the state.

I’m hoping that with my background in hydrology and environmental science I can bridge development scenarios with water management with technological advancement and water policy. Stay tuned!