I had an interesting talk with another entrepreneur this weekend. It centred around integrity in the work our organizations do. He said that sometimes you need to adapt your product to what the client wants. But what if in doing this I need to sway away from what I believe is good international community development?
My challenge is that students want to know exactly what they will be doing on the ground when they travel 6 to 9 months from now. When an organization is building a school or fixing up classrooms this is relatively easy to explain. But Stratosphere does not do that kind of work. (We support existing organizations and schools.)
In fact many times being able to explain exactly what will happen on the ground months out turns the program into a “make work” situation. The craziest example I heard recently was about an organization in east Africa that readily admitted they allowed student groups to paint walls over and over again (when it certainly wasn’t needed).
I am trying to perfect the art of explaining this challenge to secondary students. Essentially I tell them the general idea of what they are doing and that much closer to the departure date we will map it out in more detail. But that waiting until we arrive or close to arrival ensures they will be doing what is actually needed at that time in that community.
My other challenge is if students are not building schools or painting walls, then how do you demonstrate they can have an impact on the community they visit? It is true they personally will benefit a lot from the trip (this is quite easy to see). Sometimes it is harder to see how a young or less experienced person can contribute to community development.
In fact it can be hard to track the successes of international community development in general- primarily when change is focused on social justice issues such as gender. So I want to give you an example from the projects Stratosphere works with.
Forgive me, I feel a little uncomfortable representing these people. But I hope this post will motivate them to write something for our blog in the future!
There is an amazing social enterprise in Kitengesa- a rural village outside of Masaka, Uganda. If you didn’t know the background you would be curious to understand why it exists there in this tiny off the map community. Afri-Pads is a small local factory that makes reuseable, washable menstrual pads. They are sold at a very reasonable price (the equivalent of 1 month’s disposable pads). And the factory workers are local women. They also have a successful outreach program tackling the taboos of menstruation. They are trying to combat menstrual related absenteeism- one of the major reasons girls miss school (up to a week every month!).
Why Kitengesa of all places? Afri-Pads wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the collaboration of the community members and international visitors that came a number of years before. Did you watch the video? Did you notice that the male school principal talked openly about menstrual related absenteeism? Without blushing? I don’t know many men that can do this in Canada, let alone a country like Uganda where these topics can be extremely taboo. In fact, I met a university student volunteering in eastern Uganda who tried to talk about menstrual related absenteeism with community leaders. She couldn’t get a single conversation going- it was quickly shut down.
So why has it worked in Kitengesa? I believe it is the result of many years of discussions, research, sharing stories, and exposure of community members to different ideas. This was not a one sided conversation. It started with a Canadian education masters student Shelley Jones who was researching why girls missed school. She spent a year working with local girls, getting to know them, sharing stories. And learning about their day to day struggles. She in turn shared her results with community leaders and members.
Other international visitors came and went and years later another education masters student Carrie-Jane Williams arrived. This student was armed both with Shelley’s research and a prototype of a washable menstrual pad. This prototype came from Luna Pads, a very successful and well known producer in Vancouver.
Carrie-Jane then met two North Americans Sonia and Paul who were volunteering and visiting Uganda. And they came up with the amazing idea of starting a factory for Afri-Pads. In fact their first location rented space from the secondary school in the former community library (a good sign they were accepted by the community). Luna Pads was willing to not only share their product secrets but went above and beyond in helping them source reasonably priced cotton. And then Sonia and Pauls adapted the product to suit local demand.
This idea needed a community that was open minded. How was this possible? Any one of us that has travelled somewhere different knows that a new experience in a new culture can shift or even transform our perspectives. After each new trip we start to approach challenges from new angles and I believe this gives us a huge advantage. But what about the community members you visit? How do they benefit from this shift in perspective? Sharing stories can provide a similar transformational experience as we begin to learn about other cultures and ways of living. We start to see there are alternatives. We start to tackle challenges that have existing in our communities with a new perspective and we try things that have not been done before.
In Kitengesa when girls got their period many just simply stayed home. They were embarrassed about the rags they used. Disposable pads were simply too expensive. They were ashamed. And they were worried about having an accident at school. But mostly this is just what girls did. It was accepted. Girls missed out on 1/4 of their education because that’s just what girls did.
Through open discussion and sharing stories, community members began to realize that things could change. Girls should be in school regardless of whether they were menstruating. The topic became less and less taboo. And when Sonia and Pauls suggested they start a factory that not only tackled menstrual related absenteeism but employed local women, the timing was right.
Community development focuses on long term change and progress. It is not as simple as saying this many schools were built, this many people were inoculated. It is a process and a journey that starts with stories and new perspectives. It is about tackling barriers to social justice and over time, perhaps very quietly, being part of real and lasting progress.