Monday, March 4, 2013

A Change of Perspective

Imagine that you are the first Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) to arrive in a rural community in West Africa 50 years ago. The village where you are posted has never experienced any outside efforts at development work. During your first few months you conduct an assessment to help the community identify felt needs. You are then ready to help them conduct their first project to address the most important need identified. What guidelines would you use to help the community design this first development project?

This is a version of the question I posed to volunteers to begin my presentation at the recent All Volunteer Conference (AllVol) in Senegal. During my past two years of service, I have turned over and over again in my mind the Peace Corps' definition of development as 'a process, not a project' and the role of the volunteer 'to help people help themselves.' How might I help design projects to better help community members create a process for development? How might I better help them to help themselves?

After the past 50 years of outside efforts at development work, a general perception of development as a project, not a process, is present among community members in my village. This perception of development as a project, something 'given to' or 'done for' community members, has been a major obstacle for me in my efforts to help community members help themselves. My primary goal during my third year of service is to explore possibilities for changing this perception.

However, the way I have been exploring these possibilities has not been productive. I have spent a long time thinking, reading, and writing about development in order to create guidelines which I feel should be used to help communities design projects and then communicated these guidelines to the rest of the Peace Corps community. But the dialogue I hoped to spark and the changes I hoped would result never came. Why? The answer might be best portrayed through the evolution of the recent presentation I made at AllVol.

Making the presentation at AllVol

I come from a scientific background through which I learned to make an argument and back it up with evidence and examples. A year into my service, I wrote an article for an in-country PCV publication titled 'Making Projects that are Sustainable and Reach the Poor.' In the article, I stated the guidelines I feel should be used in designing development projects, presented supporting evidence, and cited examples from how I was applying them to Moringa promotion in my village (please refer to previous blog posts or look online for more information on Moringa). The first version of the presentation I created for AllVol followed this same pattern of telling my guidelines, proving them, and citing examples.

I was given the opportunity to practice the presentation with PC Togo staff before leaving for Senegal, and it was apparent from the start that my presentation did not have its intended effect. Excited to finally be speaking in front of a group after practicing with the powerpoint presentation on my laptop, I found the faces of audience members as blank and unresponsive as my computer screen. Rather than create dialogue about how we might better encourage the perception of development as a process, not a product, and better help people to help themselves, my presentation left the audience unresponsive and distant. I began to realize with the feedback from staff that the topic is better approached through discussion rather than presentation. Instead of telling my guidelines, it would be better to help others develop their own and discuss them together.

I went back to the drawing board before flying to Senegal to make the presentation more engaging. Instead of telling the audience my guidelines, I would ask them to make their own list and compare with a partner. I would then help audience members create a list as a group and facilitate a discussion of which guidelines we do well and which we might improve. At the end, I would make connections between the guidelines on the group list and my work promoting Moringa in village. The presentation turned into a discussion where I spoke less than the PCVs who attended.

I presented 3 times at AllVol. During each presentation, the audience came up with a different list and had different views of what we do well / what we might improve. It was interesting to note that there were several guidelines that appeared on each group's list:
  • Before beginning a project, PCVs should help community members discover and assess the needs which they feel are most important (aka 'felt needs').
  • PCVs should understand the culture and conduct projects in a culturally-appropriate manner.
  • Projects should use local, pre-existing resources and structures in the community.
  • PCVs should play the role of facilitator or witness, training trainers so that when the PCV leaves the knowledge will continue to spread through the community.

I might draw the following connections between the above guidelines and Moringa promotion in my village:

Community members in my village feel that there is a need to improve health, but there is not a consensus on how to accomplish this. Discovering and assessing the needs for a village of 20,000 people would also be very difficult. I have therefore taken a different approach to addressing this need. The photo above shows a Moringa tree that was planted a decade ago as a branch. This one branch has in time produced many branches. My hope is that Moringa can be promoted in a similar way: villagers will begin to consume Moringa leaf powder, realize the health benefits, and then their neighbors will notice these benefits and also begin using Moringa. While only a few people may plant Moringa and consume Moringa powder at first, with time many more might pick it up. Village saving and loan groups and pig raising are two development projects that I have seen spread across my community in this way.

Moringa branches integrated into a live fence. Live fencing is an already existing cultural practice in my community – villagers build live fences for privacy, shade, and animal pens. Planting Moringa branches is also preferable to planting seedlings because there are roving goats which will eat the seedlings close to the ground, whereas the animals are unable to eat the leaves of planted branches which sprout higher up. An enclosure must be built to protect seedlings, which is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Children like to amuse themselves with branches planted in the open by rocking them back and forth. This is very fun but kills the tree, and planting the branches in a fence resolves this issue.

Moringa leaves being dried on a mesh, called an 'agbadze,' used to break clumps of ground up cassava into powder to transform into cassava flour. Moringa leaves must be dried in the shade in order to conserve vitamins which would be killed by sunlight. Villagers often try to dry them on the floor in a room of their house. However, due to a lack of air movement inside the room the leaves take a long time to dry and they require frequent turning to prevent molding. The poorest villagers also only have two rooms in their houses, and drying Moringa leaves in one room takes up valuable space. The 'agbadze' is a local, pre-existing resource which helps to resolve these issues. Leaves can be placed on the mesh, covered with another mesh, and put in the shade under a tree or straw payote where there is lots of air movement so that the leaves dry faster.

A woman who sells sniffing tobacco sitting next to Moringa leaf powder she made. The process for making sniffing tobacco is very similar to making Moringa powder – dry leaves, grind them into a powder, and then filter the powder through a sieve to make it fine. By focusing on teaching women who make snuff tobacco to make Moringa powder, a new technology can be fit into a pre-existing aspect of the local culture.

A fat baby, fat because her mother eats lots of Moringa leaf sauce and powder. Other villagers have begun to notice this and asked how the baby got this fat. In this way the baby's mother has become a trainer, explaining the benefits of Moringa to other villagers.

The discussion that produced the above guidelines did not follow the Socratic Method. It is not possible to ask questions to guide audience members to an answer because in creating guidelines for development there is no answer – only better ways of doing things. Creating guidelines and proving their importance will not result in dialogue on or changes in response to the perception of development as a project, but consideration and discussion of the development process might.

I learned much more from this discussion than I would have if I had stuck with the first version of the presentation. First, PCVs must have time to settle into their village, integrate into the local culture, get used to the food, learn the language, perform a needs assessment, and do a hundred other things before they are ready to even begin that first project. Criticism of a specific project makes PCVs unresponsive, distant, and defensive because they have spent all this time on these initial tasks in preparation to conduct the project. Asking them to further consider the values of the Peace Corps in the context of their work might be much more productive than stating my guidelines and showing how they might be applied to their situation.

Next, outside development efforts often have goals other than 'helping people to help themselves.' Diplomacy, for example, is often a priority for projects begun through U.S., European, or East Asian development organizations in West Africa. Development projects can improve relations between countries with potential benefits for other sectors such as trade. Volunteers also have goals other than teaching a community the development process. Many hope to gain experience with project planning, creating and managing a budget, and monitoring and evaluation, skills needed to conduct a funded development project which will be useful in life following Peace Corps.

Lastly, I came to realize that while the guidelines individual PCVs might use in designing development projects are different, our intentions are the same: to help people. The difference is the process we would go through to accomplish this. Giving things to or doing things for a community through development projects is seen as necessary by some PCVs if we are to improve the lives of villagers. And no matter how much I have worked to create guidelines for development projects, this other viewpoint has equal importance.

PCVs in the audience during a presentation

Now imagine that you are a PCV arriving in that same rural community 50 years in the future. The community now has another half century of experience with development projects. Do the villagers perceive development as a project or a process? Are they looking to have things 'given to' them or 'done for' them, or are they eager to see how you can help them help themselves? Or is it somewhere in between?