So I'm at the Starbucks in Trujillo. 9PM on a Thursday night. It is crowded. A few teenagers meeting, some people reading. Groups of 20-somethings dressed nicely and conversing over coffee, young professionals hunched over laptops. Weird. And to think earlier this afternoon (and a 90 minute bus ride) I was talking with families who didn't have light, running water and lived with dirt floors and an elementary school education....

Microwaves and Dishwashers...

So I live in a Posh Corps house; electricity, TV with cable, running water, furnished bathroom (complete with urinal even though I live with all women…), microwave and washing machine. It’s a pretty sweet life, and really I make no apologies for it. I’d rather live here, than in a cave in the mountains like some of the other volunteers (NOTE: nobody actually lives in caves). But the funny thing is, while all of this does seem natural to me, some of the luxuries aren’t utilized by my family.

For example, the microwave. Virginia just doesn’t use it. The fifteen year old has a limited concept of how and why to use the microwave (that it’s better to heat up food than cook it through) but still hasn’t quite mastered it and calls me for help. Same thing with the washing machine, which was a recent addition. Virginia still washes her clothes by hand, even though I tell her we can use the machine. The fifteen year old uses it every now and then, but still mostly by hand. I, of course, use the thing to my full advantage. But why don’t they adapt?

Partly because the technology (washing machine and microwave) is just so new and unknown to them, that they don’t know how to take advantage and are slightly intimidated to use it. The other is that since they were getting by alright using the stove and washing by hand, that using the machines aren’t part of day to day life for them whereas it is for me. And especially regards to the washing machine, they’re also just used to washing a little bit here and a little bit there, whereas I’m used to stockpiling laundry until the last possible minute (hence why I’ve worn swim trunks on laundry day back in college).

And maybe I’m overanalyzing, and maybe I just have a little too much free time but I think this does say something. First, just having something doesn’t mean it will be used. The washing machine sits right next to the sink, and they still go for the sink. Second, cultural and social practices will always hold strong. When you grew up cooking with firewood, and then recently used gas, so a microwave is just unheard of (and unnecessary?). Third, maybe these devices weren’t necessary (for them, for me necessary for sure) and the resources could have been better used for something else (new TV, paint for the house). I’m pretty sure that Virginia or the fifteen year old never actually asked for the microwave or the washing machine, the other family members just bought it and brought it over. And while they could definitely help in day-to-day life here, without adaptation they just take up space. Hmmm…this seemingly sounds like behavior change model and ‘white elephant projects’….

White Elephant in Development

One of the things plaguing development, especially local development is the proliferation of ‘white elephant projects’. ‘White elephant projects’ are ones that are constructed with the best intentions and for the simplest reasons (bathrooms or wells for instance), but are not utilized by the community after the project is completed. Obviously, this is a waste of resources for human capital, financial capital, and time.
Largely, white elephant projects come about when not enough research is done in the community beforehand. Research and conversations and the community needs, customs, behaviors, and beliefs. I am often reminded of a story passed onto me from a Wooster grad about a white elephant project in Africa. An NGO saw that women in the community had to walk an hour to the river to get water, and then carry it back. Therefore, it only made sense to build a well close by as to cut down on the transportation time. Well, the NGO successfully built the well but it was never used. The women continued their hour walk down to the river with their buckets and ignored the well. When asking why the women did not use the well and continued with what seemed a slightly absurd practice, the women commented that collecting water was a social event. The time spent collecting water was time spent outside the house and time with their neighbors and friends. While collecting water, the women would chat, pass gossip and news, and just socialize. By using the well, an important part of the women’s social life was being reduced. Perhaps if the NGO took this into account, they may have planned differently or included a project or initiative to make up for the lost social gains of water collecting.
One of the things that Peace Corps in Peru presses is a behavioral evaluation model, which seeks to examine why people do certain practices (not use condoms, use campo abierto) and then to examine how these practices can be changed. This is part of the reason why the first three months at site, we actually don’t do any projects. Instead, we do community diagnostic work such as interviews, community mapping, FREESOP, and seasonal calendars to better understand how the community works. These create conversations between the volunteer and the community to exchange information about the community but also about the volunteer and allow both to get comfortable with each other. The idea is, with community information and community input, the volunteer and the community can formulate plans and projects that the community sees as necessary and wants.