New Zealand Children’s Health and Education Trust (NZCHET) has been working on the remote islands of Vanuatu for the past 9 years. We have established three very successful projects that are today running in our absence; our only involvement is to be available whenever the local project management team needs our advice and assistance which is infrequent. Of course, we have learnt a great many valuable lessons on this incredible journey, lessons which we think are so vital to any aid project’s success that we would like to share them in this article. It has become clear to NZCHET, not only through our own observation and experience but also from our data, that aid projects that create sustainable economic development/enterprise will lead to self-reliance and self-determination for the community. Further, our data confirms that the idea of self-reliance is not a new one to poor communities in ‘third world’ countries. Very often under served by their governments, they are already self-reliant and self-determining simply because their existence and survival requires it.
No Decisions About Us Without Us
In order to ensure that the economic enterprise installed has a chance of success, NZCHET’s data further confirms our deeply held belief, that the project must be initiated and fully supported by the community. It is the work that goes into a project long before it is installed that determines the projects longevity and ultimate success.
What is the work prior to the instalment of the project that we are referring to?
You Have To Go There To Know There
For NZCHET that work entails actually living among the people, and consulting with a wide range of people from the community about their needs. It has meant committing ourselves for months at a time in order to get to know the people and truly earn their respect and trust. This is not an easy undertaking because many people in such communities have had very negative experiences with aid workers and have been disappointed and let down on past occasions. However, this part of the project requires more than just commitment. The most well intentioned and committed aid workers have failed after months of community consultation. Why? Because the best of intentions and commitment must be accompanied by an attitude and ideology that rejects some of the very underlying assumptions that have hindered aid projects in many parts of the ‘third world’ and even caused their failure.
The legacy of colonialism and imperialism has left its scars on both the colonised and the colonisers. For those of us that come from the so-called ‘first world’ those scars can often mean that we approach people in ‘third world’ communities with a paternalistic, ‘we know what is best for you’ attitude. I have seen examples of complete indifference to the Ni-Vanuatu people over the years, I have seen projects that have actually bypassed the local people and stand deserted today.
Such attitudes may seem surprising in this day and age where everyone is so ‘politically correct’. However, sadly it is all too common an approach when otherwise politically correct liberal ‘first world’ aid workers are unleashed on ‘third world’ communities. The worst part of all of this is that very often the aid workers themselves think that because people do not hold exactly the same worldview as them, then somehow those people are not as intelligent as them, and they therefore have no belief in their ability to run their own affairs and make their own decisions. Sounds archaic I know, but believe me I have witnessed this attitude many times, sometimes so blatant that it is shocking.
‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’
NZCHET believes that the fundamental reason for the incredible success of our projects has most definitely been our genuine respect and belief in the incredible potential and ability of the people we are working with. We have adopted the methodology outlined by Paulo Freire in his book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. Like Freire, we believe that learning and transformation can only take place when there exists an authentic relationship between the teacher and the learner, and that an authentic relationship only exists where there is trust, empathy, respect and a genuine belief by both parties that they can learn from each other. Certainly it has been NZCHET’s experience that we have learnt as much from the people we have worked with in Vanuatu as we have been able to teach them, and that there has been a truly mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, ideas and viewpoints.
We talk a great deal about project success but what really is the measure of a project’s success? We talk about outputs and outcomes but surely the only way to effectively measure a project’s success is to have the project evaluated by the community itself. Their evaluation regarding the outcome of a given project is the only result that truly matters.
If a project is to succeed, then it must remain in operation after the NGO has departed and it must have met the outcomes developed by the community in consultation with the NGO. These should include:
- Improving the standard of living for the residents of the community
- Having full community and council support
- Having been designed to be sustainable in the long term, without outside assistance
- Generating an income that is environmentally sustainable and ensures equal opportunities
- Ensuring ownership of the project is firmly in the hands of the community and that there is ‘good governance’.
I put good governance in quote marks because I have seen many examples of what is actually good governance being questioned and/or doubted because members of an NGO have imposed their idea of ‘good governance’, which may not be culturally compatible with the people they are in partnership with in a given country or community. Defining ‘good governance’ is not value-free.
It requires a constant struggle on the part of every aid worker not to view everything through their own Eurocentric, ‘first world’ gaze, and impose culturally inappropriate values and ideas on the community they are working with. This not only causes issues that will most likely make the project a failure, but it is also a form of cultural imperialism which is unacceptable. In simple terms, we have to shake that idea that “our way is necessarily the right way”.
The People Know Best
Even the word ‘aid’ leaves a bad taste in our mouths because it infers a giver and a taker. We prefer to use the word ‘facilitate’ as this infers assistance without dependency. As already discussed above, for too long aid agencies have presumed to know what is needed, especially in the areas of health and education. We can no longer presume to know or understand the needs of a given community. We must be prepared to become immersed in that culture, talk with the people, live with the people and truly work hard to understand their customs and methods. We must learn to rely on the people we are working with to tell us what is needed. No one can better understand the problems of a given community than the very people experiencing those problems.
For example, I have seen people shy away from projects because there is an element of digital technology involved and they presume that people in the communities they are working with will not be able to comprehend such technology. Our data shows that nothing could be further from the truth. If we limit the amount of technological assistance we are prepared to bring to ‘third world’ communities because we presume that their ability to operate or understand such technology is limited, then we are denying them the same opportunities we want for ourselves.
Our role should be to assist the community to gain whatever technology they feel is required for their community’s advancement. Our responsibility is to make sure that communities in the ‘third world’ are aware of mistakes made by our societies so that they are not doomed to make the same mistakes. Warnings should be given where environmental issues arise, however, I would go as far as to say that once this advice is given, the final decision as to the suitability of a project must lie with the community. It would be presumptuous of us to think otherwise, as we would be inferring that we know what is best for a community we do not belong to.
The partnership between NZCHET and Palm Project has initiated and established three major enterprises on the island of Uluveu. Ownership of these enterprises has been realised by the community and they have forged ahead. There is a strong and mature governance structure in place. The three enterprises are not accountable to NZCHET, only to the community and the Council of Chiefs. NZCHET has a strong, authentic and caring relationship with the residents of Uluveu and mutual respect has brought us to where we are today. NZCHET are in an advisory position now with Palm Project and our assistance is only given when asked for.
Since 2011 the community of Uluveu has had safe clean drinking water. NZCHET facilitated the setting up of a desalination plant which takes sea water and transforms it into drinking water using solar power. This process does not require fossil fuels making it very sustainable. The local plumber/electrician has managed and maintained this plant since 2011. Like all machinery there has been breakdowns and new parts required and these issues have been easily resolved. Parts have been sent from New Zealand to Uluveu in just eight days and have been successfully installed by the plumber/electrician. If he needs assistance we have consultants on hand in New Zealand who worked with us to set up the project on Uluveu and know the plumber/electrician. They are easily able to chat by phone about any issues arising if and when advice is needed.
This project has not only provided the community of Uluveu with a surplus of safe clean drinking water but has also produced excess electricity which is now being used to make block ice, which, along with the excess drinking water, is being sold to visiting yachts. This enterprise was created by the community using their own ingenuity, once they realised that they had an excess amount of power. It is safe to say that that RO Solar Desalination is the best way to bring safe clean water to villages in the ‘third world’. Water pumps that bring water from wells and bore holes are problematic because of poor sanitation, which means that the wells and bore holes are often contaminated. In the case of Uluveu, this led to outbreaks of diarrhoea which were often fatal.
There is no shame in the realization that things need to change if a higher success rate is desired. What is shameful is if those of us who are committed to assisting those in poor communities around the world are unable to cast out our deeply held prejudices and misperceptions, and let go of our arrogance and paternalism, so that we can bring about the kind of development that is successful. Successful because the very people it was set up to help in the first place are able to own it and make it a success.
The final verdict lies with the people.
By Liane Farry