Presentation: Reinventing Direct Action

I’m giving this presentation today as a part of a panel at a global health weekend my friend Alex Goodell spent a significant amount of time putting together. The conference is “You Can’t Crush a Louse with Only One Thumb: Integrating Biomedical & Sociocultural Approaches to HIV/AIDS in Africa” and my panel focuses on student experiences in these issues.

To make this interesting, I’ll be arguing that both the university system and standard practices in international development are broken, and that, more importantly, there are ways to fix each which will create more desirable future. It’s not about who should be to blame, but rather how the methods for each can be improved. One of these days, I’ll start producing second version of my presentations that include more narrative text too (I’m too much of a minimalist to include extensive text on my slides). Because the Oregon Direct Action project ended before implementation, I also hope to do a retrospect post on what worked and what didn’t work in the effort.

Whitman Direct Action has been active recently, first posting an update about their most recent project, The Transnational Community Development, and then reporting on meetings with a couple of the NGOs they’re supporting.

I’ve also uploaded a PDF of the report we produced last spring, titled “Developing Water.” Through a series of surveys, focus groups, and interviews, we took a look at the socio-cultural constraints to clean water access in the Kolwan Valley. It isn’t necessarily anything groundbreaking if you’ve been working in the sector, but it does serve as a pretty legit primer to water access issues in India.

Broken Connection

Broken Connection

In Savurgaon, a small village in the Kolwan Valley, Maharashtra, India, a broken pipeline in March 2009 means no water for at least five days. The community shares its local government, the Gram Panchayat, with two other villages, a unique situation to the area which ultimately means that issues aren’t often addressed as quickly as they should be. In the interim, many of the families are dependent on the generosity of a wealthier farmer with his own private bore well. When water does come again, though, the way the pots are ordered will signify who gets their fill first.

Open source reporting on projects

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to travel again with Green Empowerment and check out the water project in progress in the community of Suro Antivo. Through a combination of municipal and foundation funds, the small collection of houses is finally going to receive safe and reliable water access to their households. To date, most families have to get their water from unimproved sources. There are two tanks being built, and one being refurbished, which will supply water to each house through a gravity-fed system:

Under Construction

Old and new



Continue reading “Open source reporting on projects”

In the news: entrepreneurship in India, Paul Farmer and Haiti, and water access around the world

Three news items that caught my eye in the last couple of days:

Building a Social Entrepreneurial Garage Startup in India – PBS MediaShift
Update from a pretty cool project to bring community radio stations to rural India. If it’s not too prohibitive to launching one of these (who knows what it takes to legally license spectrum in the country), then it could interesting to try applying the concept of a social business to this. I can see community radio for a social cause having a tremendous effect on water literacy, health education, etc. Also related: layoffs at out-sourcing firms might lead to huge innovation spikes in India. I certainly think it’s possible. Here comes the real competition.

Change Haiti can believe in – The Boston Globe
Paul Farmer and Brian Concannon argue for better US policy towards developing, and not punishing Haiti. It will be interesting to see how Obama’s foreign policy changes will affect the country’s development (especially in this economic climate and after the hurricanes). The authors are also participating in a panel discussion tomorrow night, the 27th of January, that will be broadcast live over the web.

Ecologists warn the planet is running short of water – Times Online
An annual report by the Pacific Institute in California says that the world could run out of “sustainability managed water.” Part of me wonders if this article is too broad to actually deliver anything substantial, but water is certainly going to become more and more of a local issue.

via Publish2

My winter term

In about a half hour, I’m headed on Continental Flight 308 to Houston, hopefully ending up in Lima at some point tonight. The plan as it stands now is to spend two months in Peru enjoying the summer and working on a few different projects.

The first destination is Arequipa, in southern Peru, to do research for Health Bridges International (HBI) on how the clinics serving the Alto Cayma catchment area can better coordinate efforts, share resources, and work together. The specialty I hope to bring is identifying ways in which communications technology (like a Google Group, WordPress blog, or SMS) can enhance collaboration. Wayne and I worked on a questionnaire a while back that will be implemented at a healthcare providers conference on Monday and Tuesday. Here are some of the questions we’ll be asking:

  • What types of resources are you commonly lacking?
  • Do you have internet access?
  • Do check email regularly? How often?
  • Are you interested in collaborating with other local clinics/ organizations?
  • Would you be interested in sharing specialty consultations?
  • Would you be interested in sharing supplies or resources?

We’ll be trying to keep it short, but I’d enjoy any and all feedback on the questions we’re asking, as well as ideas on how to connect clinics with limited resources.

Along with doing research for HBI, I’ll be doing interviews to gather information for MobilizeMRS, a project with Isaac Holeman and (hopefully) Lewis & Clark Direct Action. These interviews, which will probably be video too, will try to deduce:

  • A solid use case for FrontlineSMS in the HBI clinic in Arequipa
  • What different stakeholders think the project can do
  • The organization of the community health workers network
  • # of trips made per day by community health workers + doctors, average distance of each trip, and how they travel
  • Access to electricity

Thanks to Josh Nesbit for feedback on the scope of this research.

At the end of January, I’ll be headed to Cajamarca to work on Oregon Direct Action’s water project in San Pablo, Peru.

More soon, I promise. Final boarding time now. If you’re going to down there at the same time, hit me up. I think I’d like to do a few weekend trips to get away from work. And an FYI for those of you that follow me on Twitter: I hope to tweet as I’m traveling around. Twitter no longer delivers international SMS, however, so the conversation might seem a bit one-sided at times. My apologies in advance.


Sadhana Clean Water Project presentation to PCC

At about 0800 hours tomorrow morning, or today based on your timezone, I’ll be giving a presentation to the Asian Studies Program at Portland Community College, Rock Creek Campus.

It’s a longer, more in-depth version of the one I gave in November, which means I get to expand a bit on the times I slept on train station platforms and when I got ringworm. We’ve finally finished the report associated with the Appropriate Technology Study Group, too, and I’m excited to go over some of the findings.

Sidenote: SlideShare doesn’t seem to think Helvetica Neue Light is a legitimate font and instead replaces it with some medieval looking thing. This is especially fun to discover by trial and error at midnight when you have to wake up early the next morning. Yes, I know that the lettering is too big on the first slide.

#india08 presentation to IIT alumni

This afternoon, after about 4 months of postponing, I finally gave a promised presentation on the Sadhana Clean Water Project and my journey through India this spring. The lucky audience was Portland-area IIT alumni; it was my return favor for the wonderful advice I received before the trip from a Mr. Harbans Lal, an environmental engineer, neighbor, and now close friend. 

Slides, as always, are far more rich with the stories and explanation. In any regard, it’s been fun to flip back through the memories. On top of that, I figured out this morning how to go through my tweets from the trip and find my favorite.

Blog Action Day 08: The cost of water

In Mumbai, India, the poorest of the poor pay disproportionately more for their water.


Men and boys from the non-institutionalized slums of Mumbai (the ones on the periphery of the city without public taps) wake at 4 AM every morning to buy water from those who do have formal connections.

Super quality

The cost of water is two rupees per 35 L jerry can when the lines start at 5 AM, but jumps up to around six rupees per can when the water from the city stops flowing. Most families need between eight and ten cans per day.

Filling up

In short, those who have to buy their water each morning can spend up to 900 rupees per month. The deed holders (i.e. those who own land and have a house) have pipes from the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) at a cost of only 125 rupees per month.


Unfortunately, this appalling situation is in equilibrium, as house owners can make upwards of 3,000 rupees per day selling water to those who have to spend a significant amount of their income to get the bare minimum.

To make matters worse, the BMC would like to privatize water in the future, arguing they “lose too much money in the business.”

Here, in the slums next to Govandi and Mankhuted, “Do you get the water?” is asked each morning in place of “Hello” or “How are you?”

Images and text released under Creative Commons for Blog Action Day 08: Poverty

ATSG technical update

One aspect of Whitman Direct Action’s (WDA) 2007-2008 Sadhana Clean Water Project is the Appropriate Technology Study Group, looking at the socio-political constraints to clean water access in the Kolwan Valley of southern India. Traditionally, WDA has been an implementing organization, generally working with an in-country, non-governmental organization (NGO) to bring a piece of technology to a community or region. In early conversations with one of our collaborating partners, Sadhana Village, we determined it would be more poignant to rather work to understand why water access projects aren’t adopted to the degree hoped, and establish some of the challenges they face.

The Kolwan Valley [Google Maps], where we conducted our research, is an area an hour drive from Pune. It is comprised of 17 villages, or 19 if you count the larger Paud [Google Maps] and Kolwan [Google Maps]. The large majority of households earn their income through subsistence farming, with wheat and sugarcane being the primary crops, and everyone else through a small variety of other means. At this point in time, there is almost zero industry in the valley. This could soon change because of the proximity to a rapidly expanding urban center (Pune). Village size is generally between 70 and 400 households, which are then commonly split into between two and five “wadis” or pockets including the village proper. Composition of the wadis is, for the most part, determined by socio-economic background; for instance, in many of the villages we worked in, there was a “harijan vasti” scheduled caste (SC) families. Governance is done on a local level by the Gram Panchayat, a “democratically” elected body responsible for the basic issues of each village, and on a wider scale by the Gram Sevaks and regional Indian government. The structure of these villages, and of the valley, is as such to provide characteristics unique to the area and threaded throughout India.

Data collection done on the ground by participants in the study group consisted first of surveys coordinated by two partners, Mahindra United World College of India and Gomukh Environmental Trust, and implemented by high-school students of both MUWCI and the valley. Over two hundred responses from nearly all of the villages were collected. A second, preplanned component of the research was a series of focus groups and/or discussions with different types of groups from the valley, including scheduled caste women, school children, and the Block Development Officer (BDO), an official responsible for the government-sponsored water management projects. With one of our goals being to collect information on the same topics related to water availability, water quality, water quantity, and sanitation from different stakeholders, we found it was also wise to interview some member of the Gram Panchayat to get an “official” view of those aspects in each village. This detailed information on where certain wadis get their water, how much they get, and so on proved to be crucial in determining which water sources, or points of distribution, we should test.

Our guiding focus for the Water Quality and Quantity Addendum was originally to determine whether the water in the valley is generally safe to drink or not without further treatment, as well as to collect the supplementary data to establish a need for better water management. One reason for this is to partially substantiate the report produced by the study group; it will be important when we pen the paper to prove there are both socio-political constraints in the region and that the valley has a water problem to begin with. Although much of this type of information should be available from the Indian government, we decided, with more explanation later, to go ahead and do independent testing of the basic indicators of water quality:

  • pH
  • Temperature (C)
  • Fecal coliform
  • Turbidity (NTU)
  • Dissolved oxygen (mg/L)
  • Total nitrate and nitrite (mg/L)
  • Biochemical Oxygen Demand (mg/L)
  • Chloride (mg/L)

The tests were done through a variety of means. Dissolved Oxygen, pH, and temperature were all done in the field, as well as total nitrate, nitrite, and chlorine when the Lifewater kits showed up, and we took samples for the rest. On returning to the lab, the water for fecal coliform tests was placed on a culture of McConkey’s Agar for 24 to 48 hours. They were then assessed for growth of lactose and peptone-producing colonies, indicative of E. Coli, Salmonella, and other bacteria potentially harmful to human health. The pros and cons of each testing method will be documented in the full report.

As with working in any foreign country, there were, and still are, many challenges to getting the necessary hard data required for such a report. A significant amount of time, anywhere between one and four hours per village depending on how many cups of chai forced upon the team, was required to do a Village Water Source Worksheet [HTML], the first step towards understanding where we should test. Another timesink was that each one of these worksheets required at least one and sometimes two or three translators. This can easily magnify the amount of time needed as a question must first bounce from person to person and then the answer back the same path. One justification for why these questions have been necessary is that reliable information from the government is notoriously difficult to get, in both time consumed and accuracy. For many complex reasons, very basic data on water quality, quantity, and access sometimes either does not exist or is falsified. On top of that, there is an extraordinary bureaucracy to work through in order to obtain stats. The first person you talk to will pass you on to the next, and so on and so forth.

Regardless of these difficulties, we were still able to test 15 points in 11 villages assessed.

By testing for basic indicators of water quality, and surveying for hard data about the water sources in each village, we will be able to establish far more than just whether the water is generally safe to drink or not without further treatment. For instance, determining whether there is a presence of fecal coliform in the water can validate the accuracy of statements on both how often the water is treated and tested. If the man in charge of treating the water says he puts TCL in every day, but there is bacterial growth in the sample taken, there we will be able to document that there is a disconnect somewhere along the line. Furthermore, if the water source is being tested regularly, and there are indicators that the water is unsuitable for human drinking, then there should be action by the local and regional government to correct the problem. A presence of bacterial growth in the water could indicate some breakdown in the societal mechanisms required to provide safe drinking water. It is in ways like these that the hard data we’ve collected on the ground is proving to be a valuable asset.

With all of that being said, a fair bit of work still needs to be done. The collection of raw data from the Appropriate Technology Study Group is only just now being synthesized for analysis; through this project, we’ve been able to come to the overall conclusion that data collection is a time-consuming process. If it is at all possible, we would like to obtain the official water quality data from the government to see how it compares to our information, as well as use it to describe the long-term trends of the valley. It’s accuracy, of course, would have to be taken with a grain of salt. We made a request for this information to the BDO a couple of weeks back, and promised we could get it, but it has yet to come. It will also be important to continue tracking down the appropriate climate and water availability information to be able to compare how much water villagers perceive there to be compared to how much there actually is in each season, in addition to being used to depict the characteristics of the valley. Furthermore, it could be interesting to get hard data on how much water is being used for what, including what quantity is diverted away from the valley for use in Pune. The other data required to support certain arguments in the report will likely arise as we continue to figure out which specific dynamics in the Kolwan Valley inhibit access to clean and reliable drinking water.