Sustainability Starts With A No
NGOs love to talk about sustainability. It's something we all value, a goal we strive for. Truth be told, I worry if some of us are only paying the concept a little lip-service. We can get as cute and fancy as we'd like, but the in our line of work, the guts of sustainability is all about the ability to say 'no.'
Not to sound overly paternal, but the child-rearing analogy works well here: If we say 'yes' to our kid's every request, what happens? We create little monsters, hell-bent on realizing their entitlement by always getting what they want, when they want it. The same principle applies to the materially poor of our world.
During my stint living in a rural Nicaragua, I saw this play out time again. I personally witnessed locals making their pitch to gringos for money and otherwise at least a hundred times. All too frequently, the North Americans loosened their purse strings with relative ease. The result was an economic disaster for the village I lived in. Seeing this play out taught me an important lesson: how to say 'no'. It was difficult at first, but became easier with time. What I failed to realize then was that learning to say 'no' was the best thing that I ever did to prepare myself to run a charitable organization.
Even the manner by which we at Su Nica make 1st contact with a community is designed to provoke ownership and prevent our organization from projecting what we want to do onto the community and its people. To accomplish our goal of community ownership, we employ a strategic method called a "Participatory Rural Appraisal" (PRA). A PRA starts with a meeting where we gain an incredible amount of intelligence about the community and its issues. PRAs are run by locals, or at very least, Latin Americans-- i.e. not a bunch of North Americans. Our goal is to eventually remove North Americans from the PRA meeting altogether once our staff allows for it. Currently, we let one white guy tag along, who poses as a photographer. This piece is critical to enabling communities to help themselves rather then become dependent on handouts.
Fast forward to present day, our little organization is currently participating in a full-scale clean water solution for 110 families in a rural Northwestern Nicaraguan village. The community itself is spearheading things through a "Water and Sanitation Committee". This committee was peer-elected by a democratic process shortly after the PRA, and represents a critical part of injecting sustainability into a relationship, versus merely providing handouts.
Now that we're thoroughly in the planning phases of this project, the key is to coax as much leadership and community input as possible from the Water and Sanitation Committee. From the beginning of our organization, we've maintained that water projects cannot happen without much-needed socialization efforts in the community. Building the well itself is the easy part. Working effectively with the community is the part that takes finesse and skill, which is why our Project Coordinator is actually a sociologist by trade. We've even successfully educated him along the way to ensure he could be conversational about the technical aspects of a clean water system.
We're feeling great about the community buy-in so far. Nearly 100% of the community has come together to cover 10% of the project cost, as well as provide all of the required physical labor. The community has done, and will continue to do its part, and now it's our turn to do ours.
It's time to Turn On the Water in El Porvenir.