‘International development’ in Bolivia

Getting all the kids together to take a picture was a bit of a challenge. After a week of building and many more of organizing, designing and fundraising, the new eco-bathroom for their one- room school was complete. BY NATHAN BLUMENSHINE

In January I left my home and job in South Minneapolis to do volunteer work in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Like many people in my neighborhood, I feel a duty to address the pressing issues of our time with both local and global knowledge. Unfortunately, environmental destruction, economic inequality and racial discrimination are not just Minnesota problems. Often when a person such as myself works on solving these problems in a foreign country, we call the work they do “International Development.”
The first thing I would like to point out is that the name “international development” is misleading. A better name would be “local development by internationals.” The most international thing about the work was me, not where I was working. Of course, there are some good and bad things about this. While an outsider´s perspective can lead to possible improvements in living conditions that are often missed by locals, it is best to use the local method of making that change.
Similar to the USA and probably most everywhere else in the world, in Bolivia, people typically do things the way they have done them before. This applies also to toilets. As Bolivia has experienced a massive rural to urban migration in the last decade, urban centers like Cochabamba, where I lived, have not been able to keep up with utility services like running water and sewage to accommodate the new arrivals. Unfortunately, the typical approach of building a pit toilet has more negative effects in more densely populated areas. Because Cochabamba is built in a mountain valley and the new arrivals build their homes on the edge of the city, water, and anything the water has in it, flows down into and through the city. On top of the smell, the threat of disease from poor waste management practices is rising rapidly. An Eco-toilet is an outhouse designed with a special toilet bowl and plumbing that separates the feces from the urine. The feces falls into containers that are moved to a ventilated drying chamber when full and used as fertilizer after a year. No water, no dangerous sewage and no smell. Seeing this problem and solution more clearly while not having to worry about daily issues such as supporting one´s family is where the international, like myself, is probably the most helpful. The challenge is to figure out how best to provide this technology for people who could use it, which brings me to what I think is a negative aspect of International Development.
A negative aspect about being an international participating in local development is that I was not there indefinitely. When a Bolivian colleague and I first visited the community where we eventually built the school bathroom, we did not know how long the approval process would take. Bolivia has a very laid back culture when it comes to time and is also a highly organized society, that is, everyone attends community meetings every month, which would be the typical way of how the community would engage in a project like this. Imagine if everyone in your neighborhood went to your neighborhood association’s monthly meeting! However, since I do not like doing nothing for a month or leaving before something is complete, in my very American way I pushed the project forward quickly by getting the approval of community members and leaders individually. This meant that structurally, functionally and aesthetically we were able to create a great product to give to the children of the school. What was left out was community ownership and agency of the project. At our bathroom opening ceremony, one of the parents thanked us profusely for our work but qualified his gratitude by explaining this very issue to me. He wanted to be more involved, to have done some of the work and been required to make some sort of financial contribution.
Putting myself in this dad´s shoes I can easily see where he is coming from. I would feel the same way if a well-intentioned person came and built my kids a bathroom or installed solar panels on my roof or planted a garden in my yard. It would be a wonderful gift, but I would feel the need to be involved. I do not think it is in my future to return to Bolivia for an indefinite amount of time to build bathrooms in the local way. Instead, this experience has informed me how best to support local development by internationals in the future. Whether I play the role of the local in Minneapolis or the international in Burkina Faso remains to be seen.

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