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For sustainable answers, involve all parties

  • Published at 12:02 am October 25th, 2019
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When developing an area, ask the locals what they want SYED LATIF HOSSAIN

Three true stories about why it is important to gain a community’s trust

In early 1968, I was interviewed by Oxfam and the United Nations Association of UK prior to taking up an agriculture volunteer position at a Gandhian Ashram in Bihar, India. I remember proudly telling the interview panel how I planned to increase egg and milk production in the villages.

After a year, in 1969, I felt I had got nowhere and I was very depressed at my lack of success. One evening I was sitting near the main Buddhist temple at Bodh Gaya wondering if I should resign. A Buddhist monk, sensing something wrong, asked me what was troubling me. 

I told him that, despite living in a village for a number of months, I had failed to influence any improvement in the villages. He asked me if I had ever really discussed life in detail with the villagers to find out what their priorities were, and I told him that I had not, because I had assumed that they would automatically welcome hybrid seed and fertilizer. 

A few days later, with my counterpart village worker, we called a village meeting and found out that the most important thing that the village needed was the repair of a small village shrine, a sort of mini temple. 

As soon as this was completed for the cost of about only Rs800, amazing improvements gradually took place. I can now document a few of the lessons which I learned all those years ago. Such valuable lessons have often guided me through so many years of development challenges.

Feeding and breeding

The animal husbandry expert had come on a visit to some interior villages in a tribal belt of eastern India inhabited by the Santals. Talking to a group of farmers, all male, he asked: “The animals you have for pulling the plough and for giving milk are too small. You should breed with a hybrid bull and you will have stronger animals and the cows will give more milk. You’d like that wouldn’t you?” 

“Well … er ... yes …” came the tentative reply. “But if we have bigger animals, they will eat more and we cannot afford that, and in any case, we are used to our small bullocks for pulling the plough and we can easily handle them.”

The “expert” was, for a moment, impressed by their logic and wondered where it came from, as the farmers were, he knew, illiterate and backward. And so, changing his approach, he continued: “But your cows should have one calf a year and they can, if you manage them properly.” “Oh, now what are you saying?” exclaimed a man who appeared to be the leader of the group. 

“That is not in our hands, it depends on the wishes of our Gods. That is none of our business, not in our control.”

Exasperated, the “expert” posed another question. “If you give your cows more water, would they give more milk?” “Yes, of course,” the farmers’ leader replied. “But as the women carry all the water and they are busy the whole day that is out of the question.” 

“And I suppose,” came the retort from the “expert,” “that you are always too busy as well, but at least do consider constructing a drinking trough by one of the village wells so that the animals can easily come and drink.” 

The leader was, for a moment, speechless. “That seems to be working against nature. We will have to call a meeting and discuss this. Do not rush us, we cannot do anything to annoy our Gods and our spirits.”

It seems that sustainable answers need a lot of thought, input and discussion by all parties involved, including the invisible ones.

A farmer’s view of hybrid seed

Gopi Manji, from Budhal village near Bodh Gaya, Bihar (eastern India), had lost two children due to medical complications of malnutrition in a serious drought. 

At that time, a local NGO had organized many food-for-work projects that had brought some relief to families similar to Gopi’s. 

The following year, the NGO, with foreign donor support, decided to launch an irrigation and agricultural development project. There was virtually no discussion between the NGO and the farmers, because it was accepted that the hybrid seed and fertilizer was a “very good thing.”

With adequate winter rains and supplementary irrigation available from the newly constructed wells, the potato crop that winter was a bumper one, and Gopi was able to pay off the debts he had incurred at the time of the deaths of his children the previous year. 

The NGO felt that no follow-up would be required because, they quite naturally thought, Gopi would automatically use the Kufri Senduri hybrid potato seed and fertilizer the following winter.

However, when the field workers of the NGO visited Budhal village during the growing season, they found, to their dismay, that Gopi had reverted to growing the local variety once more. In astonishment, the field workers asked Gopi: “Did you not earn a big profit from the hybrid seed last year? Why then are you using this useless local variety again?” 

“Well,” Gopi thoughtfully replied, “it is true I earned much money last year, but the truth is that our local variety tastes much better, does not need so much irrigation, and keeps in better condition and for longer.” He continued: “The main reason for not planting ‘your’ seed again is that, because of its big size, it is necessary to cut it into small pieces before cooking whereas ‘our’ seed needs no cutting at all and so my wife, Chinta, does not have to spend so much time preparing the food. She can help me instead in the fields.”

After the drought

After a severe drought in Bihar, India, a Gandhian organization set up a centre for village training and development. A foreign organization sent a number of experienced and technically trained young people to work alongside Indian counterparts in the fields of agriculture, civil engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. 

In the well-digging program, it was found that the inflow of water was very slow and therefore each six-ft diameter well could not hold enough water to satisfy the demands of a five-horsepower diesel pump, even for a short period of time. 

The foreign civil engineer decided to experiment. He proposed 30- ft diameter wells with wedge-shaped bricks to eliminate the need for mortar between the bricks. It was summer season when there was little employment to be found in the fields of the big farmers, and so the small farmers and landless labourers of the project villages were glad to have the extra work, and because they were being paid to construct wells for the benefit of their own community, they were doubly happy. 

Each digging team was the responsibility of the man or woman on whose land the well was dug, although the well actually became community property as the owner of the land gifted the land to the village council.

One day, the program supervisor, along with the foreign civil engineer made a routine visit to one village thinking that, by now, the digging would have been completed. 

They were astonished when they found that the well-digging was not even half-finished and indeed no work was underway on the day of their visit. The foreigner was quite angry but his Indian colleagues sensibly requested him to calm down and suggested that there might have been a death in the community. Eventually, the man in charge of the digging operations emerged from his hut and told the visitors that he could no longer continue the work. 

He explained that such a big well was “not traditional” and that they were not used to handling such a big well. “However,” he added in an emotionally choked voice, “the main thing is, you see, if I have an argument with my wife, it is much easier for her to run outside the house and commit suicide in a 30-ft diameter well than in a 4 or 6-ft diameter well.”

These three different experiences taught me so much about how to work with communities and gain their trust. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.