January 23, 2008

Sustainable development work?

Luke and I have been thinking a lot lately about “development work” and “sustainability.” Living and working here in Honduras as a PCV makes it nearly impossible not to ponder the meaning of these terms and how they translate into the work that we as volunteers as well as government and non-government organizations do here in Honduras and other “developing” countries.

For starters, what exactly is “development”? According to materials given to us as new PCVs, development in its broadest sense is any process that promotes the dignity of a people and their capacity to improve their own lives. Ok, so what exactly constitutes the “improving” of one’s life? One could say that for example, access to health care and a giant flat screen tv are both “improvements” to one’s life. Of course, we scoff at that idea because we all know that while a big screen tv may “improve” your tv-watching capability, it’s not actually going to make you a happier person (really?! yes, really). However, having access to pre- and postnatal care will actually improve not only your health but your life and the way you think about it. Besides health care, there are many other obstacles to improving ones life such as climate, geography, economics, politics, and social conditions.

So that’s “development” now what is “sustainability”? “Sustainable” development is defined as work that a community is able to continue on its own without outside support. People learn to build on their own strengths to take charge of their lives, and to address their expressed needs. A development project should be culturally sustainable (does the concept fit within and build on local beliefs and traditions), politically sustainable (when the NGO or PCV leaves, will the project continue within the socio-political context?), economically sustainable (will there be sufficient local resources or the capacity to generate them when the supportive outsiders leave?), managerially sustainable (will there be local management capacity to carry on the work when the supportive outsiders leave?), and environmentally sustainable (as the project grows, will the environment be able to sustain the use of resources?).

Ahh! With all these things to think about and absolutely zero funding (expect for the occasional grant) life as a PCV is sometimes overwhelmingly frustrating.

Wouldn’t be easier just to “drop in” to build a few houses, maybe even a church or a school and then head back to our own lives??? Um, the answer to that is YES, it would be easier. That’s called charity and it has its place but it also has limits when it comes to behavior change and long term social and economic improvement. (I’ve seen too much equipment and too many projects that were the “drop in” type and once the “supportive outsiders” left, their projects were stagnated and began to gather dust immediately because they were nowhere near sustainable to begin with).

So, without necessarily giving people “things,” we (PCVs as well as other organizations) have to work within a human capacity building framework – where the focus is on the development of people and their skills. We have to avoid paternalism (giving to people or doing it for them) and motivate the people to improve their own lives. The first part of this process is figuring out what the actual needs are of any group of people or individuals. We may think, for example, that a community needs improved stoves because we (as the development worker) can’t enter a house without the smoke burning our eyes. However, this particular community may not perceive this as need and might put clean water, a school, or a health center higher on their needs analysis. Throughout all of this, it is helpful to look at development as a process, not a project. While the process may contain many “projects” real change is SLOW to come. Patience and perseverance are key qualities as well as being able to deal with not seeing any real concrete results of your work.

Another question that often comes up in the big scheme of things is why is Honduras the way it is? Why are there so many development workers and volunteers here? What would happen if every development organization, church group, and volunteer decided to pull out of Honduras? Would the government, who has been able to depend for years on outside aid and support to bring their people clean water and other basic necessities, finally realize that they have responsibilities to their country? Would they also realize that perhaps foreign organizations don’t know what’s best for Honduras? Possibly. Or would culprits such as lack of jobs, hunger and poor nutrition, emigration (1 in 7 Hondurans is currently living in the US), poor education, poor health care, lack of potable water, corruption, violence, years of exploitation by foreign countries, lack of capital, and an inept government continue to be barriers that prevent change?*

Well we definitely don’t have the answers to the questions I’ve raised here but we sure do spend lots of time thinking about them. This purpose of this blog is not to criticize Honduras or Hondurans, simply to let our readers join in on the conversations that we as PCVs have. My idea is to have another part to this blog about foreign influence and the beginning of outside organizations in Honduras (to help us understand why Honduras is the way it is today). There may be a third part on resource distribution and globalization. Stay tuned…

*Thanks Javi & Sara for brainstorming that list in one of your blogs.


Anonymous said...

Your assesments are very interesting to think about and well thought out. I will be interested to see what other people blog. Mom/Jean

discovering me said...

Hi, My husband and I have discussed the same thing you have written in your blog. He remembers when he was about 5 yrs old, volunteers coming into his little town near Comayagua and giving the children medicine, it is now 45 yrs later and Honduran people are still fighting the same issues. We ourselves are trying to think how we can get my brother-in-law to be self sufficient in Honduras, but with a elementary education, and no money it is almost impossible. I look forward to reading more of your blog. Cheryl

Toño said...

It's too much of a coincidence the fact that your site is Danli, and that I share the same views about sustainability and the Peace Corps. My name is Antonio Gonzalez and I was a PCV in San Julian, which is located about 20 Kilometers or so Northeast of Danli. There is a Laguna there, and most Danlidenses would know the location as the Laguna de San Julian. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog on sustainable development work. Those same questions that you posed, were many of the same questions that fellow PCV's,Hondurans and I discussed. I was an environmental education volunteer from 2000-2002.
Are you two by chance involved in the world wise schools program? I am a 4th/5th grade teacher in Sacramento and have been trying to contact PCV's in Honduras to establish a correspondance.
IS there still a 7-up shack near a gasolinera that sells baleadas?
Stay healthy, Antonio

Mel said...

Great blog. We have discussed these issues in our countries as well. I loved it, and thank goodness someone is talking about things other than the presidental campaign;) Miss you guys. Gosh this heat sure is a change from the zero degrees and snow in Iowa.

Darrin and Julie said...

Not sure who is allowed to look at your blog but I stumbled upon your link on Caleb's website. I think we met once in SPS at the MCC office.
As the MCC rep here in Honduras this is the stuff I struggle with almost everyday. I don't have all the answers either but I think you hit on some of them.
1. the local element in any "development" project is key. If its only gringos doing it, it isn't going to last
2. Simply dumping stuff on people does nothing long term and usually fails
3 Results are very slow and many PCVers or other foreign volunteers won't and shouldn't expect to see major change in their time here

If you haven't read it already an interesting book on foreign NGO influence in Honduras is The Globalizers:Development Workers in Action by Jeffrey T Jackson
It is only one mans opinion but he makes some interesting arguments. I might be able to bring it on one of my trips to Danli for you to borrow if you like.
We'll have to meet sometime when I'm down there. Darrin