Monday, November 11, 2013

Externalities & Internalities of Giving

[Written for the blog of El Porvenir (see previous post)]
Externalities & Internalities of Giving:
a critical reflection on foreign charity

            Why do we give? What is our interest in working with and helping people in need? Why do we do what we do? I’m sure each of us can come up with a surface-level answer that is meaningful to us, generally something along the lines of wanting to make the world a better place, sacrificing for others. But these are questions that invite – nay, demand – a much deeper and more critical examination. What are the experiences in your life that have awoken this calling in you to do good for other people? And specifically, why these people & why these issues? What role does your own self-interest play in it? Is there a part of you that is doing it because of the way it makes you feel about yourself, or how it shapes others’ perceptions of you? I don’t mean to imply that self-interest should not be a motivator for charitable work. Quite to the contrary, I think that it is essential that we are self-interested in what we are doing. But it is critical that we understand the role of that self-interest: the degree to which it is a motivating factor, where it stems from, and how it affects the way in which you view your charity – whether you contribute your time, your money, or something else.

            There are many problems that have arisen with foreign charity that I find very troublesome. The risks of self-interest and imperialism, the idea of coming into a place and “helping” people who have never asked for any help. Wealthy anglo saxons pressing Christianity, world-views, & foreign cultures onto poor people, both actively (mission trips & the like) and passively (they see us and associate our prosperity with these things). Non-profits existing more for the benefit of their directors & staff than their constituency, resulting in the misuse of valuable aid. NGOs doing work that should be done by the governments- I see a couple issues here: first, being that they do not have the long-term vision & follow-thru that governments theoretically must have for their people, NGOs can simply fade out or pack up and move out. They will have great numbers to show for it (Hello Millennium Development Goals), some pretty pictures, and self-satisfied donors, but they may leave behind communities that are worse off than had they been left alone completely. Second, because NGOs are often more effective and less corrupt than local governments, foreign aid money has the tendency to filter mostly into NGOs, arguably helping keep the government in a cycle of ineffectiveness, not dissimilar to the way in which the water crisis keeps hundreds of millions of people in the cycle of poverty. Even in the most well intentioned individual or organization I think that these are relevant issues. I do not have an answer to these questions, but I think they – like the ones I posed earlier – are very important ones to consider when engaging in this type of work.

            I think that El Porvenir understands these issues as few other organizations do. It is why nearly its entire staff consists of native Nicaraguans. It is why “sustainable self-help” anchors the mission statement. It is why all El Porvenir projects are initiated at the request of communities, rather than originating in an El Porvenir office. It is why El Porvenir has made efforts to integrate into the Peer Water Exchange, which provides long-term accountability for donors, organizations, and communities. It is why ownership of each project is given to the community in question, as it provides the labor and a portion of the funds for each project. It is why El Porvenir empowers those that it helps through giving leadership, sustainability, and accountability training and responsibility to community members for each project. It is why work trips have no religious undertones – they are about people making authentic connections, learning from each other, and working side by side with each other. The list goes on and on. Certainly El Porvenir is not perfect – there is always room to improve. But by maintaining a critical eye that genuinely empathizes with the needs and values of those it serves, El Porvenir can continue to be a model for other organizations that seek to do good in the world. I would like to end by once again turning the reader’s attention inward: what culpability do we have in the dire lot of the millions who die each year from water & sanitation related causes? In a largely capitalist world, where our nation’s material wealth is so firmly rooted in the exploitation of these countries and these people who we profess to help, how do we reconcile our desire to care for others with our role as active accomplices in their suffering?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Water is Life. Pass it On.

     Juan’s motorbike sputtered to a near standstill as we bounced up yet another rocky hill. I felt the throttle release and prepared for the downshift that would send the bike lurching forward and nearly topple me backwards onto the uneven dirt road behind us. Only one more kilometer to La Sevita.

Our golden chariot!

     Forest and I arrived in Nicaragua the night before, after twenty four hours of traveling.

     Well, attempting to travel in any case.

     We ran into considerable difficulties in Sao Paulo when the Taca Airlines reps, apparently taking a fancy to us, came up with a plot to keep us and three Australian surfers from leaving Brazil. Once the ladies in the back office finished having it out in Spanish over who got to talk with Forest, we were able to ascertain the reason for our detention. They informed us that anyone traveling from Brazil to Costa Rica must show a Yellow Fever vaccination card – though after a glance at the ripped biceps surrounding me I developed a suspicion that perhaps the Taca ladies enforced this obscure rule rather selectively.

     Anyway, after much unpleasantness and a missed flight we were able to bypass the difficulties of going through Costa Rica and book a flight straight to Nicaragua.

8:00 A.M. found us on our way to breakfast with Rob Bell, the executive director of El Porvenir in Nicaragua. Agua Limpia para Nicaragua – “Clean Water for Nicaragua” is the slogan, and mission, of El Porvenir. El Porvenir (which translates to “The Future” in English) is a nonprofit organization which works to provide access to water and sanitation for rural communities throughout Nicaragua.

     Over breakfast we discussed a plan for visiting the various projects over the following week, and Rob gave us an overview of how El Porvenir operates in Nicaragua. El Porvenir has a central office in Managua and field offices in each of the six regions in which it works. The field offices generally have three staff members; one for water and sanitation, one for reforestation, and one for hygiene and education. Communities approach the field offices when they want to request a project. Staff members then visit the community to determine its needs, and if the project is accepted El Porvenir provides technical expertise and training, lends tools, and funds the materials needed to complete the projects.

     The village benefitting from the project is asked to contribute what they can – usually 5 to 10% - and provide all the labor. In addition, each village elects its own project committee and takes responsibility for the long-term maintenance of its project.

     After the project is completed, El Porvenir community health education staff does periodical checkups to work with the villagers and help them become self-sufficient so that they can maintain the project on their own.

     Sustainability and sharing of knowledge are two of the keys to El Porvenir’s success. The regional offices hold four education seminars per year. Each community elects two representatives to go to the regional meetings and share their projects and their knowledge as well as learn from the other communities. The representatives then return to their own villages and pass on what they have learned. The communities are able to become increasingly self-sufficient as they learn from others about long-term maintenance of projects, adopt better hygiene practices, and learn about organic farming and how to take better care of the resources that they have.

I was just figuring out how to stay securely on the seat as we navigated the rocky terrain, when all of a sudden Juan brought the bike to a stop. I had to pry my protesting fingers open in order to dismount, as they had become fixed to the rack after clenching the metal for the past twenty five minutes. We were not to the community yet though, and looking around I realized the reason for our sudden stop: a flat front tire. The thought of retracing our path on foot over the hot, dusty, barren terrain did not bring me any joy as we contemplated the sunken tire.

     Fortunately though, it wasn’t much further to La Sevita. And amazingly enough there was someone in the tiny 17 family village who had the tools to fix the tire on the spot. Meanwhile, Forest and I spoke with community members and were shown the El Porvenir projects within the community.

     Each family had a latrine courtesy of El Porvenir, as well as a pump. However, the pumps had not been used in a month as the generator had burned and was only just being replaced as we arrived. Tranquelino, the village elder, explained to Forest and me that because the pumps had been out of service for the past month, the community had been forced to fetch water from their old source. Tranquelino showed us the source they were currently using: a trickle of water flowing out of the side of a bank below La Sevita. Nowadays it’s normally only used for watering the livestock, and drinking from it had caused stomach sickness for a lot of people, explained Tranquelino.

     Every village we visited radiated warmth and gratitude for all that El Porvenir has done for them. They were also very upfront about how much more they still need as a country.

     “I am old and already sick,” said Tranquelino’s wife Margarita, “but I hope better for my grandchildren.”

     “I am glad to see how young you are,” she said, “you give us hope for the next generation. I hope that you will spread the word. We need so much more. We’ll be waiting for you here.”

     Forest and I spent a week traveling from region to region in Nicaragua, and being shown the various projects by staff members from each of the field offices. Each village had a different story to share. Some have completed projects, and some are waiting for funding or still constructing their wells. In the villages without wells, people are walking anywhere from ten minutes to an hour and a half round trip to collect water. Of these, most have to make several trips a day to the source and many then have to boil the water before it is drinkable.

     The men of the family are usually gone during the day working to earn an income for the family (most survive on less than $2 per day!). For this reason the women and children shoulder the burden of fetching water, often spending hours each day carrying 40 pound buckets of water from streams or open wells to serve all the household needs. With so much of their days devoted to finding water, many children do not have time to go to school and get an education. Thus the vicious cycle of poverty continues, and without access to clean water there is little hope of rising above it.

     With water comes hope. As El Porvenir observes first-hand, access to clean drinking water dramatically improves family living standards, reducing disease and child mortality, freeing girls' and women's time, as well as improving school attendance and performance.” More two thirds of rural Nicaraguan communities lack access to safe drinking water. I hold no illusions that the projects can provide an overnight transformation. But for the next generation of Nicaraguans, water is the first step. And in every well dug, and tree planted there is a promise of a better future.

Sadly, Nicaragua is only one piece in a much larger puzzle, as around one billion people lack access to clean water worldwide! The Blue Planet Network is an organization that works to provide water to rural communities around the world. I became involved with the organization last summer after I was inspired by their book Blue Planet Run to organize a race to raise money for the cause. Sustainability and accountability 
are the key areas in which the Blue Planet Network set really sets itself apart from other organizations.

     The Peer Water Exchange (PWX) is essentially the implementation arm of the Blue Planet Network. In a nutshell, PWX allows funders, NGOs, communities, monitors, and the public to collaborate transparently to end the global water crises. The following is directly from the Peer Water Exchange website: “The real problem is that we continue to apply the same ineffective solutions hoping the crises will go away. The world's crises cannot be solved by traditional approaches; we need to first change our mindset to overcome deep-rooted roadblocks in our system.
“[Successful solutions] involve community organization, appropriate technology, hygiene, sanitation, transfer of ownership, change in behavior, and long-term maintenance. Integrating these dimensions - one project at a time - is hard. This difficulty has made our ability to scale the work within our current bureaucratic philanthropic process impossible. PWX creates a new mindset and model - Philanthropy 2.0 - that with 100% transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness destroys our roadblocks to help us solve humanity's crises.

“2.2 million people in developing countries, most of them children, die every year from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene” - BPN

To learn more about El Porvenir, the Blue Planet Network, or the Peer Water Exchange, and how you can get involved – or to make a donation – visit their websites: 

A woman carrying water up the mountain in Payacuca. A ten minute walk uphill WITHOUT jugs.  Thanks to El Porvenir and the Blue Planet Network all Payacuca residents will soon have access to water pumps near their houses.

A well under construction.

40 people representing 20 communities learning and sharing with each other during one of El Porvenir's day and a half long conferences.

Rooftop water collection for washing clothes.

Marlon showing us the old open well used by several families before El Porvenir funded the current water project.

Marlon showing us the pump system installed in Payacuca by El Porvenir.

An unimproved drinking source that caused much illness and diarrhea in the community before El Porvenir funded a well project. 

Girl drawing potable water from an El Porvenir well.

Beginning of a reforestation project.

A well under construction.

Open latrine used by a family.
Double-pit latrine constructed by El Porvenir.

Unimproved drinking water source.

A well almost complete after two years of digging.


Unbelievably polluted stream running through town.

Washing clothes in the river.

Collecting water from the river.

Constructing a well.

Unimproved drinking source.

Drawing water from a completed well.

***I meant to post this last week on World Water Day, March 22nd, but I didn’t have internet access as I was working on an El Porvenir project with a group from Washington State in La Culebra, a small village that does not even have electricity***

World Water Day PiƱata courtesy of El Porvenir