Working in the Red Zone…Thoughts on Community Development, part 1

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Community development takes time.  I think we all know this, to some degree, and yet the message often gets lost in the world of development aid with our funding cycles, program goals, and an understandable desire to scale quickly.  I recently had a chance to reflect on the necessity, and difficulty, of creating community ownership of development projects during a trip to Haiti. I had the privilege to spend time with a good friend, an American woman living in Cite Soleil.  Cite Soleil is an area made famous by the documentary film the Ghosts of Cite Soleil, which depicted a violent gang warzone.  The area, made of up possibly 400,000 residents and including both rural and urban areas, is still considered one monolithic neighborhood and a “red zone” by many organizations, (meaning that they consider it not safe for international staff.)  And yet, development organizations continue to work in the area, many realizing that these negative depictions do not reflect the reality of a community that may have systemic problems but that also has families, children, entrepreneurs, schools, and incredible amount of potential.

Helping Cite Soleil, however, is not easy.   It is not one community but an area made of up many blocs.  There is a lack of trust between blocs, and a general lack of trust of outsiders – paint an NGO logo on a school and you can almost guarantee that no one will enter.  This lack of trust stems, in part, from the history of politicians favoring certain groups at certain times, providing gifts and money to some in order to cause conflict with others (a text-book example of the classic divide and rule tactic often used by rent-seeking states seeking to control a population.)

I’m reminded of a blog post I wrote a while ago on the message of the movie Where the Wild Things Are, which is a story about the “risks of making promises you can’t keep and of trying to solve the problems of people you don’t understand.”  Outside projects, no matter how well-planned or funded, will easily fail when faced with the reality of community dynamics, since “relationships and human emotions are complex and messy,” in any society.

So how can well-intentioned outsiders help in such an environment of mistrust?  Although I won’t claim to have all of the answers, I will share two lessons that I observed clearly during my recent visits.  The first, ground truthing innovation in the design phase, is discussed here, and the second, sweat equity in the implementation process, will be discussed in the following post.

Ground truthing innovation in the design phase:   Brilliant people in the developed world can conceptualize and develop a seemingly infinite number of interesting products to help poor areas such as Cite Soleil, and our tendency is often to build, make sure it works, and then scale.  However, testing products within the community (much like the concept of rapid prototyping in product design) can avoid costly deployments of technologies that simply won’t be accepted by the community.  A good example of this idea being implemented is the work of Haiti Communitere, an organization that provides a space for international organizations to test new ideas with the community before they are deployed.   One idea, to improve shipping containers that have been used as UN offices since the earthquake, was rejected by the community members who tested it and simply stated, This is not a house.

On the other hand, a house being built out of recycled materials from around the area is being embraced by those Haitians who are participating in the building of the house.  This house is built out of the 1000s of styrofoam containers left in canals and roads all over Port-au-Prince, and yet through clever design and involvement of the community, it is becoming a real home.  Therefore, it is not only well-designed to be sustainable and earthquake-resistant, but it will also be an comfortable place for a family to choose to live in with dignity.

This process of ground truthing innovation serves multiple purposes: it involves the community in the design process which helps to create community buy-in & ownership; it helps to avoid costly deployments of technologies that will be rejected by the community that we are intending to help; and it stimulates further innovation by providing (in the case of Haiti Communtere) open-source ideas that can be modified and adapted to work in other communities.  This creates a low-cost scaling mechanism which can create a larger amount of impact, over time, by creating a ripple effect of innovation in communities across Haiti.  Of course, this may also prove to be difficult for organizations to accept since it will be harder to take credit for and to evaluate the impact of open-source development projects, especially if the real impact will come from other people implementing your idea without you even knowing about it.  Yet, if our goal is to create sustainable change with limited resources, then we may have to challenge some of ideas of how to evaluate impact.   I would love examples or thoughts on how your organization is handling these challenges.

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One response »

  1. Thank for this post. Ushahidi and Frontline SMS are good examples of open-source development products. As you intimate, not even they can know the full scope of the uses that their initiative has been adapted and appropriated for. Computer Aid International also open-sourced its shipping container-based, solar-internet-cafe, the Zubabox http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CL6PSWBxOVc

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