At the crux of development issues

I’m sure some of you are wondering what exactly is going on with this solar energy installation.

What is the status of the modules donated by SunEdison? (I too am wondering this)

When is the installation going to take place?

Aren’t you leaving in 7 days?

These are all reasonable questions. Unfortunately, I only have an answer for the last one, which is yes I am leaving next week. As much as I can overanalyze, complain, and punch my pillow in frustration, there is no straightforward, one sentence response to questions #1 and #2. That is a hard lesson I’ve had to learn over the past few months of coordinating this project.

Around this time last year I was interviewing for a position with an organization that works on agricultural development projects in rural Tanzania. The second round interview was a weekend long evaluation with another 20 candidates that involved discussions, group activities and case study analyses. There was one case study we were presented with that sticks in my mind to this day because of its complexity. The exact details of this scenario may not be 100% correct, but I can remember the general outline. There was a project being developed in this particular community that aimed to diversify residents’ income sources and improve their access to competitive markets in the region. The basic idea was that a group of farmers would contribute a portion of their crops on a continual basis to be sold in the nearest market. An agreement was made among the community partners to deliver on this commitment, the incentives being financial profit but also a sense of communal responsibility. However, when the day arrived to accumulate harvests for the market, the two largest community producers failed to contribute their agreed share of produce. Without the contributions from these producers, the entire trip became economically unviable because transportation costs would end up outweighing the returns from selling the significantly smaller amount of produce. When we were presented with the case study, we were not provided with the reasoning behind why these community partners failed to deliver. Yet the trip to the market could not take place as a result, leaving the community partners who did fulfill their commitment with a significant loss. The question we had to respond to was the following: Do you give the two large producers a free pass since their reasoning may be profound (family or personal complications) and they are significant components to the success of the program, or do you set an example to ensure the program’s effectiveness and either penalize them or exclude their involvement? This opened up a whole sea of subsequent concerns, among them being:

If you do allow these two producers to remain in the program without penalty, this pardon could be used as leverage by others or even by them again in the future, consequently risking the integrity of the program;

If it was a smaller community producer whose contribution didn’t determine the viability of the trip, would the same questions be asked (or rather, are we giving the larger producers more flexibility because they are integral to the success of the program)?

How much consideration should be given to the reasoning behind this failure to deliver?

The bigger debate here is whether it is more important to maintain the integrity of the program at the expense of the personal, communal and cultural realities in this setting, or whether you adapt to these circumstances and sacrifice the efficiency or timeliness of the objective initially envisioned. I mention this case study because the question here is one I am currently asking myself every day. It greets me as I wake up in the morning and pesters me until I finally drift to sleep at night. And it should be a central consideration in any truly sustainable, participatory, development project.

Over the past few months, I have struggled to adjust my own expectations for this project to the economic, social and cultural realities of both Brazil and Cabelo Seco. In addition, I have had to adjust these expectations in the context of what is realistically possible within a project that sustains 11 other micro-projects, various national and international partnerships and most recently, has been preparing for an incredible opportunity to travel to New York. Through this constant process of adaptation and adjustment in my own expectations, I learned to recognize smaller, different victories that I originally didn’t appreciate. This was a challenging realization to accept in a world where success is often measured in numbers and tangible accomplishments. In a recent interview, I received the question “How many people do you coordinate in the solar energy workshops?” Although it often feels like I am coordinating 300 people, the answer is really 3. 12 people initially signed up, 6 people came to the first workshop and 4 people participated in the majority of the workshops last year. But right now the dedicated group that meets every week is composed of 3 young people. And in Marabá, in Cabelo Seco, that is an accomplishment.

It was really hard to understand and accept the inconsistency in attendance, the fact that the individuals who appeared most interested in solar energy didn’t make it past the first workshop, that we still haven’t brought the bici-radio into schools or that the modules will likely not arrive in the next 7 days. The thing is, the reason why Rios de Encontro has achieved what it has is because it moves at the pace of the community, not at the pace of an institution. For me, this meant letting go of my preconceived notions about what this project would be and accepting the possibility of a different outcome. The question of effectiveness really boils down to how well you can respond to the needs and challenges of the community. No matter how much you plan, strategize and hope, things can (and will) go differently. So when there is a crisis at home, which happens often, we adapt to the needs of that individual. When the employees of the mechanic garage laugh at me because I arrive at their shop for the third time trying to buy the bici-radio battery and still don’t have the correct payment papers, I have to accept that this is the reality of bureaucratic processes in Brazil. When I’m confined to blubbering incoherently in Portuguese about the importance of solar energy, desperately hoping that one of the young people will stop standing there in complete silence and articulate something, anything, that we have covered in the workshops, I take a second to remember all the authoritative figures in their schools, their homes and throughout afro-indigenous Brazilian history that have told them to shut up and keep their eyes lowered.

It’s quite clear today that development projects acting with a purely goal-oriented approach and little concern for local knowledge have largely failed to bring about truly sustainable changes. When I look at the way Rios de Encontro has kept together and transformed a group of young people into community leaders over the past 7 years, I recognize the significance of their careful, patient methodology. Yet it is still difficult to determine where you draw the line and find a balance between two extremes. At what point can you make decisions that will move an agenda forward without jeopardizing the ethical and culturally sensitive approach that makes the project truly successful? I don’t think there is one right answer to this complex challenge, but I hope this better clarifies my response to questions #1 and #2. I wish that I could say when the installation is going to take place, but my answer to that is almost as uncertain as my job prospects come May. Regardless, I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that the solar modules will at least arrive on my last day here. I’ll refrain from overanalyzing, complaining, and punching my pillow in frustration, but I refuse to lose hope.

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