Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship Program :: Center for Science and Technology Policy Research

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notes from the field

These field notes are personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre

Arielle Tozier de la Poterie

Soroti, Uganda
May 22 – August 11

July 16, 2013

The town of KotidoWow. I have had an incredible couple of weeks bouncing around Teso and Karamoja, visiting villages, and supporting data collection. The VCA has been an excellent reminder of how what ought to be is often complicated by what is (thanks to Michael Glantz for introducing me to E.H Carr’s framework). In the implementation phase, idealized plans meet reality. Several times during this process I have found myself wondering, who wrote this proposal and created this timeline? At the same time, it has been a good lesson on how a lot gets done despite limited resources and unending complications.

I began supporting the teams in Kotido on June 25th; from the outset, the challenges were clear. The original plan allocated two weeks for data collection and then another couple for analysis, processing, and developing community-based action plans at all four sites. Most of the volunteers are extremely motivated, but they cannot work miracles. As they began data collection, the teams were still awaiting their pikis, which had been delayed for several months by bureaucratic documentation processes. Once the transport arrived, the challenge of getting six volunteers to the field on two motorcycles remained. Ferrying volunteers back and forth can take up to two hours, as some of the villages are 25km away.

The transport issue was more or less resolved, only to be replaced by other considerations. Keeping the community’s attention through all nine VCA activities is not simple. It is easy to assume that the poor will be grateful for any intervention and enthusiastically attend day after day of community meetings. However, community participants have farms, livestock, and other livelihood activities to attend to. Initial enthusiasm for the meetings wanes, especially in the absence of immediate returns. Most communities have worked with NGOs in the past, and are understandably protective of their time. During meetings, many people expressed their frustrations at past interactions (with other NGOs or with government development officers) and what they believe are broken promises, corrupt processes, and benefits that never materialize.

Scenery and scared rock in AbimBecause people have expectations and other obligations, the volunteers are under tremendous pressure to provide some kind of immediate gratification. This, however, runs contrary to how I understand Red Cross philosophy, which encourages communities to be willing to contribute their effort and resources to identifying and solving their own problems. In theory, they should be motivated by the desire to help themselves. Providing food, sodas, or other incentives can easily undermine sustainability, as people participate for the immediate reward and fail to become invested in the process and the outcomes. Unfortunately, in some areas, and Karamoja in particular, people have become accustomed to handouts. My Red Cross colleagues informed me that until the conflict in Karamoja ended, international organizations provided aid by air-dropping food from airplanes. When I arrive in Karamajong communities, people greet me with outstretched hands, repeating “hunger”. It is both heartbreaking and frustrating. Clearly years of donated aid have done nothing to help these people out of poverty, but it is difficult not to concede in the face of suffering. The expectation that the NGOs should provide immediate relief makes initiating a potentially more empowering and long-lived processes challenging. The volunteers are constantly explaining the different model and hoping that it will eventually bear fruit.

Aside from these challenges, I have observes several strengths of the VCA model. In particular, the use of local volunteers, who speak the local language and understand local customs, is essential. Over 40 languages are spoken in Uganda, and more than one is sometimes spoken in a single village. Because most volunteers come from the regions in which they work, they are able to communicate effectively and to adapt VCA tools to the local context in ways that outsiders could not. During one activity I observed that, although the whole community was meant to be working together, the volunteers kept men and women on opposite sides of the meeting area and that some were not facing the center. When I asked why, the volunteers explained that out of respect people are not allowed to approach or look at their in-laws. We therefore had to be careful to allow appropriate distance and to let people sit facing away from each other. Without their input, I could easily have interpreted people sitting with their backs to me as a sign of disengagement. Instead, it was merely respect for local customs.

So, what are the takeaways? I describe challenges not to sound unnecessarily critical, but as a reminder of some of the real difficulties of working with communities or of implementing development projects. Red-tape, inefficiency, resource constraints, and differing expectations cannot simply be brushed aside. Were these obstacles easy to overcome, many persistent problems would likely have already been resolved. It also takes more than two weeks to conduct a full VCA in four villages. In the end, deadlines shifted to reflect reality, and the volunteers are in their fourth week of data collection. Despite complications, people have been remarkably flexible and a lot of good work has been done. On a personal note, observing the strengths and weaknesses of participatory methodologies has been fascinating, fun, and an invaluable experience. What I have experienced thus far will undoubtedly inform my future research.

In the next phase--developing the action plans--I am interested to see how the community-based plans, which are meant to emerge organically from the VCA process, will be integrated with the activities already planned and funded by the CCA project. In theory, the VCA would be conducted before activities are defined, so that community priorities could truly dictate actions. In reality, it is difficult to find resources for project planning (execution of the VCA itself requires some kind of funding), and few donors, if any, give money for undefined programs. Once again, theory meets practice. Starting next week, we will synthesize the data and prepare to take it back to communities so that they can develop their own plans and outline how they can work with the Red Cross and other organizations to meet those goals. I can’t wait to see how it goes.

Deborah (focal person in Soroti) facilitating a focus group while I take notes

First photo: The town of Kotido
Second photo: Scenery and scared rock in Abim
Third photo: Deborah (focal person in Soroti) facilitating a focus group while I take notes