A useful, but highly improbable, thing that could possibly come out from the entire Greg Mortenson saga is a sense of introspection on the part of the global development/humanitarian sector. Without making any blanket accusations against the entire sector, it’s safe to say that there are multiple structural problems, specifically related to efficacy of aid interventions, and more importantly, context-specific practice.
In this larger theme of abstracted development, I recently found out that in a small basti near the Muzaffargarh canal, an international humanitarian organization installed a state-of-the-art hand-operated water pump to help affected residents obtain clean drinking water. It was part of a larger project, specifically aimed at areas where flood damage was the worst, and where threat of water-borne disease was the highest.
The water pump, a local villager announced, was used no more than 10-15 times - in 5 months.
The reason he gave was that the pump required a minimum of 3 people to operate, which was far too much for people who were used to smaller, single person operated handles. He said it seemed particularly useless to install a 3 person pump at a time when people were either sick, working the fields for the rabi crop, or taking care of their families and belongings.
The water pump story is one of many examples of misguided nobility to come out from the flood response. But alongside stories of muddled and haphazard assistance, I’ve also discovered what can rightly be labeled as one of the most brilliant cases of participatory, community centered recovery in the history of disaster management.
Resettling the Indus is the name of a small but incredibly talented organization formed by students of the Beaconhouse National University, and led by a couple of inspired young architects in the aftermath of the July floods. All of these people came together for the sole purpose of helping out the affected population in their hour of need. However, as opposed to being driven by some vague notion of ‘helping’, this organization has developed an agenda of purposeful, theoretically ingenious, and extremely creative recovery.
Using a cash-for-work model to rebuild destroyed houses and public infrastructure, the RTI team started off in a small basti in Muzaffargarh tehsil, designing houses exactly where they had fallen, providing villagers with both relief goods as well as construction material and equipment, and inducing a sense of collective responsibility within the residents to literally re-settle their community.
What I found most fascinating about their project was not the fact that they’d developed an efficient reconstruction program, but rather, the symbiotic relationship between their theoretical paradigm and the physical location of their activity.
What this team has successfully done, and which the institutionalized sector is struggling to do, is to understand the linkages between nature, community, and outside intervention.
As opposed to upsetting the historically evolved balance created by the way a village is shaped in a particular environment, the theory behind RTI seeks to re-grow a village using locally available material, and domestic labor, so as to remove costs and obstacles created by contractors and middle men. They’ve been ably facilitated by their invented technique to fashion multiple hazard resistant compressed mud-bricks that reduce cost of rebuilding by nearly 50 percent and create locally sustainable structures.
Beyond the blandness of development speak, the unquantifiable impact that this project has had on that community can only be witnessed in that particular space. The community that has been facilitated into resettling itself radiates a manner of cohesiveness, purpose, and camaraderie that’s arisen out of a sense of shared experience. Beyond the limited agenda of recovery, as important as that is, the residents of this small village are now seeking collective and shared solutions to solve long-term problems of subsistence and employment.
It is exactly this ingredient that is normally missing from the way development practice is carried out in Pakistan. Without efforts towards mobilizing the community, and without inducing ownership of the recipient population, the end-result remains incredibly sterile and ultimately unsustainable. In stark contrast to the RTI project, the government of Punjab’s own efforts to reconstruct villages has remained mired in controversy, mismanagement and an inability to get local people on board.
Perhaps the most amusing aspect, if one could call it that, is that a loosely organized, self-supporting, privately funded, group of twenty-somethings have produced a model of recovery that is not only sustainable and locally applicable, but has long-standing impact through the way it generates social collectivization. Land Cruisers, millions of dollars in institutionalized aid, fine-tuned administrative structures on one side, and Hyder Ibrahim, Hala Malik and their team of volunteers and students on the other. I have little doubt that the former would do good to learn a thing or two, or ten from the latter.
Also published in Pakistan Today on 21/04/2011