Its always hard to explain what I do to someone who doesn't know the business; my wife has taken to saying, "he does internet stuff" and leaving it at that, I don't blame her.
But I had a discussion yesterday with a guy who is ICT for development, we'll call him V (not his real initial) who was having trouble figuring out why a project he is working on isn't working. He's done this stuff before, but he's working with a new group and can't make any headway.
V (or, as I call him, Vee) is from the country in question, but has been away a long time and has become pretty Americanised (in a good way - energetic, can-do, that stuff) and the people he is working with are from a different place and tribal group and a waaay different experience. So he calls me for some ideas. The chat we had is below, its anonymised and I've tidied up the Skype structure a bit, reconnected sentences and paragraphs that got split up by the chat format etc, but all the words are there.
This is what I do
Vee: how can a group of people sustain such initiative when in fact there is an absence of local leadership? Their own government has FULLY 'abandoned them...and just let them so called 'govern themselves? If you are in my shoes and wanted to introduce...say: ICT for a better education, etc. how can they sustain this? Government is NOT even thinking of taxation on this community because its HIGHLY impossible. How can these be done? if you are confronted with this kind of community?
We already tested a great reading light project for the kids. A great low cost way..using solar
Earl: the question I would ask is how do they get other stuff done? Because they DO govern themselves if they have a community
Vee: honestly....totally dependent on 'hand outs
Earl: So where do the handouts come from and how are they allocated among the community members?
Vee: and..I don't like 'hand out' specially to people who cant help themselves its been yrs now. International peace corps from France, Scotland and Germany, they 'babied' these communities and now..they are used to it
Earl: why have they no productive capacity at all? Is it that it keeps being stolen or are they constantly moved on?
Vee: No capacity at all....for any productivity, uneducated and they live in floating houses..always on the move. They used to live in the dry lands, their environment...was raped by international logging companies and..they were forced to live in the Marsh (swamp area)
Peace corp..from what I mentioned, in the long run did harm...instead of good. So we're coming in this year. People...seems NOT interested at all to sustain such initiative of ours. They are in fact very simple
Earl: at first glance it seems you are dealing with the same problem that Australia has with its aboriginal peoples. After generations of destruction and maltreatment and discrimination etc., the whole community becomes depressed and unable to act.
Earl: I can understand why they are not interested; if there is nothing they can see coming out of it, why would they put effort into it?
In this case they literally have nothing they can build on and their circumstances are not like other boat people's whose original ousting is now perhaps hundreds of years in the past and who have learned to survive and built a culture around their water life. These are more like refugees in refugee camps around the world
Vee: that's what I see ..really
Earl: They don't build anything either, and its very hard to get them to learn or take initiative etc. because the loss is too recent and they are afraid of having anything because they know only too well that people come to take away what they have; its better to have nothing, then people stop wanting to steal from you
Vee: I understand but...how about : a solution? Its driving me NUTS!
Earl: OK, the problem is that the problem doesn't belong to the people it is affecting, so they have no power to solve it
Earl: the people who OWN the problem are the ones who are causing it
Vee: yes. I see an opportunity..but, I really don't know as to why, there's a so called local tourist company who will provide local tours to visit the Marsh, these local and international tourist will take pictures...and see how 'fascinating' it is for them ..to see people leaving in harsh conditions. This tourist company is making lots of money and they are 'like birds' or animals in visiting the safaris but I told them that if you know how to read and learn the tricks of trade of entertaining these tourist they can act as tourist guides for their community educators, etc. and ask for donations of any kind. And that way you can sustain themselves the answer to me was, “ITS VERY IMPOSSIBLE AND HARD!” Dammed!
Earl: Here's another thought, the tourist company has a vested interest in these people being kept as they are so if they try to change that,. or to compete for tourist business they will be slapped down. I assume the tourist company has the RIGHT connections with government, the cops/ military etc.
Vee: government..NO, military cops..I would say..MAYBE
Earl: in other words, they have an essentially free hand to exploit the boat people and no interest in changing that
Vee: I can see that..yes
Earl: I would start to think about how you can convince the tourist company that it has a vested interest in changing the status of the people in its private zoo
Vee: yeah..I call it as their 'private safari' or Zoo
Earl: OK, so how would you convince the orang utans to take up ICT to better their lot?
Vee: but...the boat people...really can do it...IF they realized what we are trying to let them understand
Earl: because, horrific though it sounds, that is how these people are being treated
Vee: I agree
Earl: here's what you need to do, go there and stay a couple of months, in the boats, with them. Live their lives.
Vee: well..my brother was there to investigate and lived for 3 weeks with them
Earl: I heard an interview today with a well known NZ author who was, at one stage, seriously depressed. She kept her kids clean and fed and off the street, and the rest of the time she sat in a chair and looked at her hands and had NO IDEA what she should, or could, be doing it went on for a couple of years
Earl: this is what you are up against at a community level rather than an individual, and its very hard for us to SEE what they see
Vee: we were so close
Earl: then what happened?
Vee: We showed them our 'latest invention', a reading light for every child, 1 LED ...can consistently provide light for 12 hrs. Its intended for the kids..so that they can learn how to read
Vee: or practice reading at least but....we asked them....to be proactive by providing simple hospitality to visitors that can serve as donors...for them to sustain more projects in the future than we can offer but they were not very interested, the kids were amazed by the light, parents were not
Earl: the offer and the ask were not connected, it needs to be connected better so that getting the light leads to kids learning to read leads to something else that leads to people coming to stay that leads to a better life
Earl: Did you ever meet Lee Thorn from Jhai foundation? The Jhai question is NEVER "what can we do for you" it is ALWAYS "what do you need?"
Vee: I remember that but it was asked, “what do you need?”
Oh my! their answer blew me off, they want a : KARAOKE!
They said they want to sing to the spirits..for them to be protected from the spirits of the river
Earl: here's a thought; get them a karaoke.
Think about it they live in total misery. a few hours of pleasure and a feeling of safety is much more important than learning to read. Maslow's hierarchy
Vee: I understand, but...what can a KARAOKE bring them to..for a better sustainable living?
Earl: Here's another thought, they will not tell you what they really need till they trust you, because if I tell you what I really need, you know my weakest point so you have to build their trust
Earl: if they say they need a karaoke, trust them, show that what they say has meaning and that you respect it, a karaoke that also lets them record their own songs
Vee: hmm, I understand the trust issue
(Gap here for an hour)
Vee: I just spoke to my brother ..just hang up, discuss initially...some of your suggestions, oh my! Blow his brains away..about the karaoke issue but he understood...of course, its a different group far from other communities we've provided assistance
Earl: The first thing is to take them seriously and to show that their understanding of their needs is important, even if, at heart, you think they are wrong. They may be testing you, to see if you are really on their side
Vee: great point!
Earl: they may also be completely serious and the vital thing is to start the relationship exactly where you find them.
I would be inclined to do this sit down and say OK, you need a karaoke, now, I need you to pay for it; I want you to teach me two songs
Earl: That would tell them that you value what they have but you don't want to take anything away that they can't replace like money or possessions. You also want to teach them that they CAN take action and get something that they want.
Vee: good point
Earl: They have to learn that their actions have power, the power to make something happen and not to be ripped off. Give them the idea that their songs have value and you start to sow the idea that they can get some things they want by trading them for songs; that requires an audience. That might mean they could host some people who will pay for their songs with something they want and the karaoke is a way to enable that learning
Vee: very good...getting clear to me
Earl: Make it one of the wind-up ones if you can so that they don't have to waste resources on batteries
Earl: Each time you take them something, ask them for a new song. At some point the people, the kids perhaps, will need to start making up their own songs to pay for the things they want. Then introduce the idea that they can collect those songs and that they could sell them to many more people than just those who come to the boats.
Don't do this all at once, one step at a time. Its not about commerce, its about trust, they have to see that your ideas are trustworthy and that you keep your word and respect what they say
Vee: that's a great point!
Earl: We all respond better to trusted people. THEN, at some point along the way, they will start to trust YOUR ideas
Vee: you know...the 'trust issue' has been one of the main reason why these people are like this
Earl: Exactly, they have been betrayed and looted and destroyed by people from outside; you are from outside, they have exactly no reason to trust you. When you say they could do something valuable with lights for the kids, they will be more likely to accept them
Vee: its a lot of work Earl, but I agree we have to go down to the basics. The good part of this..even its driving us nuts, we are not calling it quits, we are obviously determined
Earl: and the other thing you need to trust is their understanding of what they need, the Jhai guys were called to a group of villages in the Laotian jungle ans asked the mostly illiterate people what they needed. The villagers said they had no electricity, not telecoms and in many cases no floors or windows and in the wet season no roads either, they said here is what we need. A wireless, pedal powered networked computer that is robust enough to survive the conditions we live in, that can let us communicate with each other in the wet season and that can contact the hospital over the ridge so we can decide whether it is worth the 2 day walk to the clinic. And we want to communicate with our people whop have left here and gone to Vientiane or across the world so we need voice over IP and internet. These are illiterate people in the Laotian jungle with no power or phones, they know EXACTLY what they want as far as their ICT requirements are concerned. Jhai had to go away and build the hardware to meet their needs; the same will be true of the boat people, once they trust you they will be able to tell you what they need quite clearly, the important thing is to not let your assumptions and you perspective from getting in their way, its a very common problem
Vee: might take some time for that 'trust' to kick in
Earl: Jhai took 2 years to get the village pc project out of discussion and into the building phase and that was with a group that had invited them in because they could be generally trusted. It applies for every project because what it results in is local ownership and without that there is no sustainability
Vee: I AGREE! but...surely...is a great way of establishing a foundation for other purposes
Earl: For people like you and me we can afford to trust people up front because if they let us down we can walk away from it, not much harm done but for the boat people, they can't afford to do anything different because they are only just surviving the way they are now and if they change that at all they can't be sure things wont get worse and that could mean their kids die. And to start with they have been dreadfully abused so they can't afford to trust outsiders who have always been out to rape and pillage their resources
Vee: security is also unstable, its been a 'breeding ground' of recruitment for the extremist group but we will go there and use the power of: KARAOKE!
Oh my!....I cant believe this... karaoke
I can. If karaoke is the way to get things dione, that's what it is.
So, if you want to know, that's a big part of what I do, stand back and listen and then state the bleedin obvious, because sometimes, however close you get, you can't see what is right there.
Vee is dealing with people who are literally afraid of the water they live on, they need protection from the water spirits, imagine being afraid of the water under your boat and having nowhere to go to get away from it.