I have been putting off writing this post for weeks now. It is going to be difficult. Knowing that what I have to say is not necessarily the most positive or the most inviting piece. Sometimes it is hard being the honest one, the one who says what they think, the one who stands up for others, the one who says what no-one wants to hear and the one who will put themselves up for unpopularity by saying the controversial.
But I pride myself on being honest to myself and honest to those around me. If I did not write this piece I would be doing an injustice to myself, my readers who trust me, and the people about whom I write. Maybe it is naivety but I still believe that truth will prevail and that it is better to speak out in the hope of positive change.
I have written extensively about the Green & Black’s Community Development Programme expedition over the past month. I have described in detail about some of the major parts of the expedition – the digging, the homestay, the research and the local people. However, I have held back from telling you about a large factor of this expedition for me – I came home unhappy.
You see, we did not complete the objective our expedition as set out by Green & Black’s and Raleigh International. We did not turn on that tap in La Laguna. We did not provide safe, drinking water to the community. We did not finish all the trenches as originally anticipated. In effect, we failed.
In both our training sessions – one held in London in February and one in Santo Domingo when we arrived – we were given an outline of the work we were to complete, told how incredibly difficult it was going to be but were assured it would be worth it when we turn on that tap at the end of the expedition. But something went wrong.
To me it was clear early on that the project would not be completed. From observing the progress we made each day in digging the trenches I could see that there was no way we would reach the village within two weeks. Digging the road was just too labour-intensive and even with the slow-moving digger we just weren’t making enough headway to complete even just one section of the piping, never mind the other trenches the Project Managers had planned.
Further to this, we found when we arrived that the communities had already dug the majority of the trenches and laid the pipe work from the source up in the hills. In fact, around 9.5 kilometres had already been completed by the local communities. We were informed in our training session in Santo Domingo that we were expected to do the last 2 kilometres. That is 2 kilometres, 80 cm deep, in dry clay ground in 9 working days.
Frankly, the estimation of our ability to complete this task was weak. At the time of training we did not know that two Diggers would turn up to assist us, and even with those we did not complete the trenches. So how the Project Manager’s thought we could complete this with manual labour is bizarre.
A month on from returning to the UK, we have been informed that there is still no water in La Laguna. Not only had we failed in our expedition objective but it would seem that the communities we came to care so much about are still with the fresh water they were hoping for. It would seem that the expectations of all those involved have been really let down.
So what was the point of being there?
A huge expense from Green & Black’s, a massive effort from the volunteers, and the time we had given up to be there – was there actually any Community Development in La Laguna?
This a complex answer but I shall try to simplify it for this post. Yes, in some ways there were some successes. I know for sure that the community of La Laguna were thrilled to host us, to share their lives with us and connect with us. Having the expedition volunteers work and stay with them was encouraging and hopefully gave them confidence in what they do (if nothing else, our enthusiasm for the cocoa must have pleased them). In other ways no, being there was not that helpful in the grand scheme of things.
Not all development is good development
Poverty is not necessarily exacerbated by lack of finance. Often poverty is about lack of capabilities, lack of skills, lack of knowledge, lack of basic needs and infrastructure, lack of access, lack of voices, and lack of choice.
The approach to this expedition was clearly narrow-sighted. The goal was to finish the trenches and so, our days were one long slog of intensive labour. This led to tiredness and tensions within the group as abilities and attitudes varied as much as the individuals did. Furthermore it was apparent by the end of the first week that this was not necessarily going to be a successful project. If the definition of Community Development Programme was widened to include a range of activities and interactions with the local communities I believe that the successes would be wider felt despite the failure to connect the taps to fresh water. Furthermore, the impact of a bunch of Westerners descending on the small, remote community in the hills of the Dominican Republic needs to be addressed.
I believe Green & Black’s needs to take a more dynamic view of Community Development, what it means and how to fulfil its responsibilities as an ethical brand by ensuring that expeditions like this in the future are fulfilling for all those involved. Furthermore, it would be fruitful to assess all of the possible options for empowering the local communities involved, by engaging with them more fully rather than just providing support in manual labour (because quite frankly, our physical efforts would not have been missed that much).
I would have liked to have seen a more varied approach to the expedition. As it was, myself and another member of the group took it upon ourselves to get involved with the community in different ways – I conducted some research and instigated some interesting discussions with community members, whilst a fellow volunteer had brought Spanish-language children’s books to give to the school-children. In both these instances it was apparent that there was so much more we could contribute to the communities. I would like to see less pressure put on the achievement of physical goals (particularly when it was obviously not achievable) and more opportunities to engage with other activities that could include working with schoolchildren, working on the farms, spending time with the women of the village and teaching English to the secondary and university-aged youngsters. Yes, the majority of the money donated by Green & Black’s was for the purpose of providing clean, safe water but in this case our presence was not necessary for solely one activity.
Was the Community Development Project a success?
I do not think it is sufficient to measure the success and failures of the project based on the privileged opinions of those at Green & Black’s, Raleigh International and Conacado. The communities of La Laguna, Rincon Honda and La Guazarita need to be involved in the evaluation of whether the project worked and how a Community Development Programme in the Dominican Republic could work more efficiently with more enriching results for all parties involved.
Development needs to be sustainable.
Was this a sustainable project? Are there any measurable indicators by which to understand this? I do not think it is responsible business practice, let alone good development practice to not follow-up on the expedition with an impact assessment and appraisal that involves the community members. After all, we can merely speculate as to the success or failures of the project, and the gatekeepers for local knowledge in the Dominican Republic are Conacado – the cooperative who are in business with Green & Black’s.
My hope with sharing this perspective with you is that you might think about community development in various ways. I hope you understand that expeditions are never easy. I hope that approaches to International Development are carefully thought-out, understood, assessed and evaluated. I hope that Green & Black’s continue to contribute to the communities that provide their organic and fair-trade produce. And I hope that improvements are made on what (and we must remember this) was the pilot episode of this Community Development Programme.
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