There’s only so much you can come to understand from behind a computer screen or within the confines of your particular environment. This is a well-known fact, but the significance of it is often lost in the development sphere. How can you know what its like to live in a place if you’ve never been there? How could you possibly know what’s important to the people of the community or what keeps them up at night, unless you speak with them in-person or see it for yourself?
These seem like questions with an obvious answer – you can’t. But still, policy formulators and development practitioners from some of the most revered think tanks and organizations make this fatal flaw over and over again with adverse effects on the communities and people who are meant to be the beneficiaries. The avoidance of this phenomenon was at the heart of Asepsis’s trip to Nicaragua from July 14th to the 22nd.
We wanted to see the problems that people faced everyday as well as the great things about living in Nicaragua. Only by seeing these things firsthand could we come to appreciate the communities we hope to work with through a more informed, nuanced perspective. So, with this in mind, I set off to expect the unexpected in Nicaragua and was not disappointed.
Upon arrival, Timothy Bouldry – the founder of Right Path Projects and a wonderful photographer that would be my guide and partner for the week – picked me up from the airport. It didn’t take long for the unexpected to occur. As we were discussing my journey there and talking about life in Nicaragua, a motorcycle emerged from nowhere at high speed. Without time to react, we watched as the driver frantically tried to maneuver around our car before flinging himself a solid ten feet in front of his stopped motorcycle. It was then that I learned that roadways in Nicaragua can by slightly unpredictable.
This experience – along with a host of other experiences like a Sandinista Rally gone awry and cops pulling foreigners over for bribes – highlighted the sometimes chaotic nature of day-to-day life in Nicaragua for me on a personal level. However, there were other incidents more directly related to the Asepsis mission that were equally, if not more, illuminating.
On our first day of interviewing and speaking with families in Nueva Vida of Managua – a community in which a majority of its residents make their livelihoods searching for plastics and metals to re-sell – we experienced firsthand how the process of gaining important information can get corrupted. In order to get in the door with the first family – both figuratively and literally – we mentioned that we were there to work on sanitation, specifically relating to latrines. This small hint at our motivation to improve and potentially provide sanitation facilities sparked what many development professionals call the Yes Phenomenon.
Because we presented ourselves as an organization that would potentially be providing something to these families, they were automatically biased in their responses towards pointing out all of the problems with their latrines, even if these problems were non-existent. This only got worse when the first families started taking us around to other houses that ‘were having latrine problems,’ who we later found out were friends of theirs.
What happened that day highlighted the need to be sensitive in how we introduce the work that we do, framing feasibility studies and information gathering exercises as times to learn about a community’s sanitation situation, instead of fix it. We did this the following days, which greatly improved the quality of information we received.
Another unexpected development came when we were presented with a fundamental reality of life in a landfill community. The Project Dharavi model calls for the use of a low-cost toilet made out of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a durable material that is also easy to manufacture. This sounded all well and good until it hit us that these communities make their living recycling material like this to local plastics companies.
With this realization, we set out to speak with the plastics vendors. We were able to speak with the middleman vendor who buys from families in the community as well as the director of the plastics company that recycles 60% of Nicaragua’s plastics. The insights we gained from conversations with them gave us better ideas for materials to use – i.e. polypropylene and fiberglass – as well as the actors to go to when the time comes for production.
These unexpected occurrences and lessons embody the heart of development, and life more generally. It isn’t until a new reality is experienced firsthand with an open mind that understanding comes. And it isn’t until that understanding comes that change can happen.