Letter from Guatemala, Part 2


Development Ideology – Fraud or Nuisance? (II)

by Dercum Over

(Dercum Over recently completed a two-year service with the Peace Corps as a volunteer Healthy Schools coordinator. The Peace Corps officially discourages independent journalistic expression by serving volunteers, so he waited until his two years were concluded before writing this essay. Parts of it were published in the annual in-house Peace Corps Guatemala journal The Id in 2010. Publication of The Id was suspended without explanation in 2011. This is the second of two parts. You can read the first part here.)

“Cultural exchange starts with misunderstanding. We are not afraid to misunderstand.”
– Isamu Ohsuga of Byakko Sha, a Japanese Butoh dance troupe.

I bothered with yesterday’s reprise of development history because it has provided us with a contested inheritance. The prevailing ideological dogma in Postmodern development theory is now “sustainability,” and we intern fieldworkers in the Peace Corps daily endure the tyranny of the devolution of this concept. At least, I did.

My problem is not so much with the idea of a “sustainable” planning for the provision of those tractor parts, or in the case of Healthy Schools Guatemala the provision of replacement handles and washers for the faucets we install in our hand-washing stations. That seems like a good idea, probably should be part of any sensible plan for the future – oh wait, it already is!! What bonehead makes an intellectual law out of common sense? An ideologue does, that’s who. My problem here is with the tyranny of ideologies in general, and sustainability is simply the flavor of this era.

Because it is deemed more sustainable, we are instructed to include “host-country-nationals” (postmodern PC terminology for “people”) in a variety of unlikely behaviors. For instance, my job description as coordinator in the Healthy Schools program theoretically included supervisory status of water infrastructure maintenance in the school district’s several dozen schools. There is no district budget for maintenance; instead parents’ groups are responsible for basic repairs. Instead of simply fixing a broken PVC water pipe on a school campus, I was instructed to require sustainable behavior of the school and parents. In other words, I was to hold a two-hour meeting with the parents’ group and discuss it, write a budget, develop a consensus, and incidentally explain the concept of consensus to people who have been operating on consensus since before Columbus caught the clap.

It must have looked good on paper – train the trainers etc. But these are ordinary mortals, and when recently have you noticed your child’s grade school teacher, 30 students to her classroom and two kids of her own, wrestling with plumbing issues in the boy’s locker room?

A ten-minute job, the cost of repairing that broken tube was ½ Q – about six cents US.  The tube had been broken for 8 months, and this particular small community of parents prefers arguing to taking initiative, (not an uncommon community priority in Baltimore, Boston or Barstow, either.) I am an impatient ideologue, so I didn’t call the meeting; I fixed the damn tube so that the kids could start washing their hands again.

Incidentally, when I did that small repair job, it accidentally had the unintended but useful result of embarrassing the community parents – that an outsider would barge in and handle their problem.  So, the next repair I threatened to attempt in a nearby community got taken care of the very same day. My direct participation in this case worked better than any ideological pontification I could have mustered, and I believe it usually will.

Ideological constructs are perhaps appropriate in the offices and lecture halls of Washington, Princeton, or Geneva, where the conscientious and principled people who control the money must debate its equitable and efficacious delivery to us witless neanderthals in the field. (USAID, anyone?) However, the excellent inhabitants of those smoke-free rooms are divorced from the practice of – shall we say – Applied Sustainability? There’s a lugubrious example of this kind of disconnect in my neighborhood here in Santa Apolonia. Peace Corps, USAID and others have been promoting a recent development fad  – constructing composting latrines for human waste with two alternating storage bins, so the user can isolate one bin after it is full, where it reverts biologically to a rich topsoil/fertilizer that can then be used safely on crops for human consumption. Great confirmation of the politically correct ideology of re-cycling a biohazard usefully, and in parts of Africa where fertile topsoil is scarce, this concept probably provides a useful result.

The problem is that the theoretically attractive, ideologically pure concept has metastasized into the real world, where concrete problems require practical solutions. These latrines are now being promoted willy-nilly by enthusiastic acolytes of the Postmodern cult of Sustainability, (not to mention by the mediocre bureaucrats, who must be seen to promote projects in order to cite their accomplishments at the next meeting.)  Recently, two different agencies went all out in my vicinity of Guatemala and put up a bunch of them. They totally put on the dog, complete with all the consensus development and concomitant training classes. The village farmers were recruited, proselytized, and certified orthodox before construction began. (The labor was accomplished using village workers and agency construction materials, a partnering arrangement dictated by what I deem to be a successful element of Postmodern methodology, although it has also been argued that the work has always been done by the lowest-status members of any group, consensus or any other.)

After about five years (average age of the latrines from two different projects,) these 40 compost-creating latrines now stand idle in the fertile garden of Guatemala. There’s plenty of fabulous topsoil here; its abundance creates a different development problem when it falls down the mountains in landslides in the sub-tropical rainy season, smothering the life out of entire farming families, who know all about the virtues, hazards and availability of Guatemalan topsoil.

The upshot is that these 40 village farming families with the new composting latrines – thoroughly informed about soil but not yet up to speed on intrepid First-World ideologues – don’t actually want to perform the unpleasant-if-sustainable labor required once or twice a year to turn eight cubic feet of human excrement into a modest heap of topsoil. Ironically to the point, one of these unused and therefore useless latrines has been “usage-adapted” to store bags of commercial fertilizer. The bags pile up snugly in this otherwise useless outdoor closet space, and there’s a roof too. Perfect. What a waste of resources, of initiative, of an initial instance of attempted good faith between this rural community and a bunch of inept ideologues, all sacrificed on the altar of Rampant Sustainability.

So, re-ordering human behavior proves an elusive pursuit. Participating in it seems more to the point. After two years of participating in the fieldwork of international development, my view is that this kind of work hinges less on theory and more on personal contact. What we like to call development usually involves behavior change. Successfully induced behavior change doesn’t happen because someone says how. It happens when a new idea works better. Multiple repetitions are generally required in order to demonstrate this improvement. After all, this exchange of information is a communication, not a mail-order purchase. The human elements of unfamiliarity, impatience, commitment to other priorities, cynicism, immediate-need-balanced-against-future-profit, all combine to require that people develop enough trust in one another to agree to engage in the experiment together.

The theorists and managers in First World countries develop this trust with other theorists and managers in the various host countries that receive development aid, because those are the people with whom they actually spend time. For them, the location of the cultural interface where idea transfer takes place is in the upper echelons of the host-country status quo. To us in the field, this exchange projects the appearance of one chapter of the status quo patting another on the back, and examples abound – abound – of misappropriation. After Hurricane Agatha in 2010, a USAID functionary in Guatemala City quoted me a price of $250,000 US for a three-room school-rebuilding project here. Interesting number. The municipality where I live recently completed a two-room school (with all the same extras) for Q178,000 or about $24,000 US. – a tenth!! In an election year our mayor was proud to have arranged that size of investment in public infrastructure, and he said so while campaigning, so it’s unlikely that he was adjusting downward. I have to wonder – and after my completed Peace Corps service I can wonder out loud – where the rest of the money goes here when USAID is paying.

A more benign instance of inadvertent misappropriation: those agency theorists might have looked to a field worker for some advice about actual problem solving before they signed off on the glossy ideology of topsoil production in Guatemala. Those farming villagers mightn’t have bothered with those silly, out-of-context latrines if a development fieldworker had set up a real-world messy demonstration: “Here’s what you do; here’s what you get.” There was no problem with the previous latrine design, there was no problem with scarcity of topsoil, but sadly, neither was there a shortage of ideological blather.

Catchphrases also evolve. The United Nations (among others) has begun using a different buzzword than “sustainable” to describe some of its various initiatives – one that I like better, at least until the ideologues force-bloom it to include whatever else they need it for. Recent literature introduces the terminology “current best practice” when describing poverty intervention options.

At my site in Guatemala (I’m still here, I’m still absorbed by this stuff, in spite of my skeptical tone,) we are starting a project to build a school using plastic bottles filled with the ubiquitous plastic packaging trash that blights the terrain and is reportedly contaminating our food chain at a molecular level as UV sunlight reduces it to polymer dust, or as people burn it with the other trash. Creating construction materials from our trash doesn’t strike me as particularly sustainable behavior in any desirable way. It certainly isn’t a final answer about what to do with plastic; I can’t comfortably envisage construction-grade candy wrappers in our hopeful collective future. Rather, this practice seems to me right now to be a temporary, practical way to gather and stash the trash economically without burning it. (The filled bottles replace cement block as filler in stuccoed walls, which are structurally reinforced with poured-concrete-and-rebar beams.) In the near future, the empty bottles themselves will begin to have cash value as incipient recycling practices of P.E.T. plastic become more prevalent, and then this interim technique will need to adapt or die out. As such, it now provides a great example of “current best practice,” a useful theoretical generalization for a pragmatic problem-solving technique – one that took place in a specific, real-world context before it was ever idealized by an abstracted theoretician.


This essay is dedicated to the cherished memory of Dr. Sergio Mack, the creator and project director of Healthy Schools Guatemala, who died suddenly in March. He was a thoughtful leader, an innovative social-program designer, a persistent contributor, a patient boss, and a great guy.

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3 thoughts on “Letter from Guatemala, Part 2

  1. Please, Sergio was my APCD, what happened to him? Such a kind and generous man… I am so sad to hear of his passing.

  2. Hi Dercum,
    I enjoyed hearing your voice in both articles. Good job!!! Congrats. I want to hear more about the specifics of recycling the plastic bottles. Who stuffs them? Miss you. Come see how we’ve reclaimed the slag if you get stateside. xo

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