The opportunities for ‘government as platform’

Recently I have been reading an increasing number of comments about institutional and governance failure – about how our governance systems don’t work any longer. The comments seem to fall into two categories – despair, and hope. Some people look at the failure of governance to deal with changing circumstances, and think the answer is to institute ever more control. Others look at such failure and see hope for creating something new.

It reminds me that when I first began studying ‘failed states’ earlier this decade, I discovered – amid the many ideas for teaching improved governance  to ‘failing’ governments – a wonderful nugget of new possibility. This was the idea that state failure provided an opportunity to create something entirely new, and that such failure was – as in nature – a natural part of life. It was not something to be addressed by trying to restore systems that no longer worked – as in Somalia.

Today’s governance institutions are in some ways the last remnant of 19th century industrial structure. Government structures haven’t really changed that much in a century – they still organize themselves within ‘silos’, as if a health department is solely responsible for health and an employment department is solely responsible for work. At best, they seem to tinker with the names, so that ‘unemployment insurance’ becomes ‘employment insurance’ but the complex rules don’t change.

Similarly, at the international level, governments often behave as if they are the only ones who can solve a problem, even as it becomes clear to everyone that our problems are interconnected and so the solutions must also be interconnected. Municipalities, as the level of governance closest to people locally, have known this for quite some time and have been on the leading edge of changing structures to more effectively serve people.

But this change from the bottom doesn’t seem to percolate upwards. Governments seem to be the prisoners of bureaucratic structures that change slowly and creakily, if at all. I think this is because governments have seen their role as ‘controlling’ rather than ‘co-creating’, even as factories and stores and schools changed how they operated. Deep down, this is because governments don’t seem to trust their citizens or don’t believe they can find solutions to challenging problems – even as citizens are doing so.

Food is one key example. Local solutions see how interconnected the challenges of farmers finding markets, children and hospital patients having better nutrition, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions are. So we have farmers using the internet to find customers locally and thus having a guaranteed market; schools and hospitals sourcing food locally, improving food quality and supporting local farmers; and people realizing that buying food locally means that food doesn’t have to be trucked, or flown in, from destinations far away.

Several years ago, a couple in BC began blogging about the question of where their food came from, and decided to live on food that was grown or raised only within a 100 mile radius. Their diet was quite sparse at first. For one thing, people no longer grew grain within that 100 miles as they had once done. Their experiment led to a book. That book created awareness, and awareness created change. People began to grow grain, to be aware of local food sources, and to begin supporting them. No one at the top decided to create a changed system – this change grew from the bottom up . And it has spread around the world, complementing the Slow Food Movement.

These self-organizing innovations come from the power of knowledge. Governments should work with them, rather than trying to co-opt them. I read yesterday that the Canadian food inspection agency has just changed the definition of ‘local’ to cover a much larger area than just the area around a community, and on the same day, food stores began to label as ‘local’ foods that are not grown as locally as local people understand the term.

Would it not be more sensible for government to collect these stories of innovation, share them, and also examine how their policies can support this kind of change? This is the idea of ‘government as platform’, rather than the idea of government as ‘regulator’.

In some ways, it seems that governments are contributing to the collapse of this idea of their role as manager, and regulator. Austerity, imposed from the top of the system downwards, has led many people to return to the communities they left, long ago, to seek opportunity in the city. This return to villages offers government an opportunity to support a more sustainable economy, but it requires governments to change how they think about what they do, and how they organize themselves. People who return to villages bring skills they learned in cities, and in turn must learn older skills from those who stayed, and this blend can rejuvenate local village economies – and this is true whether it is people returning as a result of governmental austerity policies, or refugees returning home after conflict.

Many of the most sustainable answers to drought-ravaged land come from local people who have learned how interconnected their problems are – water management, crop selection, land management, markets – and have been able to restore natural systems that once worked well. When others see these systems in action, and learn the principles behind them, they too adapt them for their villages. The result is a better life for everyone, as well as a healthier ecosystem.

One of the things about ‘government as platform’ is that platforms make possible widespread sharing of information. And once people have information, they use it locally in a way that fits their circumstances. So information platforms create diverse solutions that address problems as big as building peace, creating sustainable sanitation solutions, restoring degraded land – from a local perspective.

Underneath the radar, people around the world are reinventing governance as they find ways to manage land communally. To grow food for themselves and their community. To create work while protecting local resources and people. All of this offers an invitation to governments to change their approach, and thus their structure – not to try and strengthen structures developed in a bygone era that no longer work.


Send in the farmers first!

Some time ago, I was talking with three men from a village in Sudan. One was an immensely dignified man, who had spent a number of years building peace among his family and then his neighbours and then his village. Through a skilled interpreter, he and his two colleagues had been telling me how they had done this work. After some time, I asked them to draw a map of the area we were discussing.
These villages were so small that they didn’t seem to appear on my map. So, on the flip chart on the wall, they drew the area. And each time they talked about an event, they showed me where it had happened. At some point, standing in front of that map, they explained to me that one result of peace was that they were able to start cultivating their fields again for the first time in many years.
When they began tilling their land again, and growing the staple crops of millet and sorghum, the prices of those two crops began to go down – because there was a greater supply. The fall in prices was dramatic, and was continuing. But not only did that increase the food security of local families, they saw it as offering an opportunity.
With some small resources, they could re-create a network of small local market that would attract traders from outside their area who would buy millet and sorghum – and also bring in other goods from outside. In other words, peace had brought not just increased food security but an economic possibility that they could see very clearly.
The problem was that there didn’t seem to be anyone who had money to fund a local market and thus help to restart the local economy – and by extension, benefit the region.
It was not an unusual story. Evaluations of large-scale reconstruction programs in Sudan, even those designed to build and encourage collaboration among agencies, found that they seemed unable to focus on the very small amounts of money needed for such projects. Or to take advantage of the fact that people returning from big cities had learned skills that they never would have had the chance to learn back in their villages.

The same geography
I was reminded of those visionary Sudanese men when I read an article in the New York Times about a US agriculture department program in California that aims to introduce US soldiers to the basics of Afghan farming. Apparently Central California looks a lot like Afghanistan and grows many of the same crops – pistachios, almonds, wheat, pomegranates and grapes. The program is intended to help the soldiers see with different eyes what is happening around them in the Afghan countryside, and reflects a change in approach that began in 2009 but is only starting to have an impact now. Part of this program involves sending US agricultural extension agents to Afghanistan to work with farmers.
What struck me in the article was its comment about how decades of conflict has devastated Afghani agriculture and taken away much of the agricultural knowledge and basic infrastructure. And I wondered – is that actually true? Have farmers forgotten how to grow those crops like fruits, nuts and grain that they used to cultivate before poppy cultivation began to increase? I suspect, from what I have seen in other places, that the answer is ‘no’ – that knowledge still exists. What has probably been devastated is the network of small local markets that used to exist, at which farmers traded and sold their crops.
And this seems to be true in many places around the world that experience conflict. One of the effects of conflict is to destroy the network of relationships that used to bind villages together and as a result, the local economic network as well. Rebuilding that local network starts with rebuilding those relationships, which is why so many local peacebuilders focus first on teaching conflict resolution skills and creating safe places for people to resume talking to each other.
Those skills have to be retaught because years of conflict turn people inward – to their families and closest friends. They learn to fear people from other villages – even sometimes their own sons, who learn that a gun makes it possible for them to get what they need without having to work for it. (In many ways, the headlines suggest that this is not so different from what some Americans also experience in their communities).People who must live in fear don’t cultivate land because they are afraid to go outside the safety of their village. They stop going into the forest to collect berries, and they stop going to fishing camps. Food security becomes precarious.
The external answer is often to focus on rebuilding local law and order, by building up the police and army. But to my mind, that is starting from the wrong place. One needs to start with changing how people think, and the people who do that best are local people who understand how people think, understand what they have experienced, and are able to work with family and friends to start changing that mindset.

Rebuilding relationships first
When people have created peace by rebuilding relationships and trust, small scale local economic development begins to flourish again. People begin cultivating gardens, selling surplus crops, trading with others for what they need instead of taking it at the point of a gun. They do so even when land ownership is not clear – growing crops on whatever pieces of land are available, as people did in Kinshasa with support from agricultural experts there.
But so often, external interventions don’t nourish and support those small shoots of peaceful growth because they are focused on the ‘bigger picture’ – rebuilding the infrastructure from the top down. And so those small shoots don’t get the small amounts of ‘fertilizer’ (read small amounts of money) that would help them grow into a stronger local and regional plant.
Helping American soldiers see the Afghan countryside with different eyes seems to be an attempt to change the focus, although the article speculates that this may be too little too late. It is hard for soldiers, who must worry about their security and that of their colleagues, to change their focus in this way. But programs like this one do hold out hope that the next time there is a conflict somewhere, and other countries are tempted to intervene with military force, that they will consider sending in the farmers first. Or at least sending in the farmers along with the peacekeepers.

Further reading:

Duplicating Afghanistan from the ground up, by Malia Wollan, New York Times, April 14, 2012

Processing plant creates new futures for Afghan women, Hopebuilding wiki

Urban farming project in Congo shows how burgeoning cities can improve their food security, Hopebuilding wiki

Talking about the ‘unmentionable’ – menstruation as a development opportunity

One of the most common searches that brings people to Hopebuilding wiki is about sanitary pads for young women. People search on this topic from all over the world. Clearly, awareness of the importance of this issue has greatly increased. Social entrepreneurs are running projects. Campaigns to increase girls’ education talk and think about menstruation. School and community-based economic development projects make sanitary pads. Talking openly about menstruation as a developmental issue has encouraged projects to build separate toilets for boys and girls in community schools.

Discussion and activity has come a long way in a few years. I first began to research this topic in 2006, when I read a story about a refugee camp whose staff had not thought about providing sanitary pads for women as a necessity, along with shelter, food, and water. At first I thought about the apparent inadequacies of the camp planning process. Then I began to wonder how those women coped with the flow of blood each month. And that led me to wonder what women did when they had no way, and no place, to buy pads or tampons.

I learned that many women used old pieces of cloth which they washed over and over again. Some used leaves of plants, or grass. In some cultures, menstruating women are placed in an isolated hut during their period. In many places, girls’ education was disrupted, when they were sent to such huts by their parents or when they stayed home from school at that time of the month because they had no reliable protection or because the school did not have separate toilets for girls and boys.

Unhealthy solutions
Clearly I was not the first person to be thinking about this problem. In Uganda in 2002, Dr. Moses Kizza Musaazi learned that many girls didn’t attend school during their periods because they couldn’t afford to buy commercially-made pads and their improvised solutions weren’t reliable. Almost all of the urban poor were using banana fibers, grass, leaves, old newspapers, or pieces of cloth. Not only were those not reliable solutions, but they were unhealthy.

Dr. Musaazi, who worked at Makerere University in Kampala, was a specialist in appropriate technology. He began to think about how to provide a low-cost solution, and that led him to the abundant papyrus reeds that were growing in swamps and on river banks all over Uganda. Since ancient times, papyrus – which is more than half cellulose – has been used to make everything from baskets, rope, and sandals to mattresses and even boats.

He began to experiment with using papyrus to produce sanitary pads. During 2003-4, he got support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The result was to create Makapads, which were much cheaper because they were made from local materials. But the impact was much more than just a cheaper product. Because he focused on locally appropriate technology and local materials, making Makapads created jobs – in harvesting papyrus, in making the pads, and eventually, in distributing them.

Makapads thus became much more than just cheap sanitary protection for girls and women. It became a sustainable, integrated, economic development enterprise that is now spreading outside Uganda. One NGO in Kenya, for example, sees distribution of Makapads as a way for women to create small local businesses by distributing the pads in villages and cities.

Addressing the health issues
People in India came up with a different solution. One local NGO, Goonj, collects old clothes, cleans them, and makes them into sanitary pads that are distributed very cheaply in poor areas of the city and villages. In this case, old clothes represented a different kind of renewable, sustainable resource. But Goonj went beyond providing cheap pads – they also began to use the pads as a way to educate women about menstruation.

In 2004, they had learned that many women didn’t realize that their ad hoc solutions made them vulnerable to potentially life-threatening infections. Village women used and re-used pieces of dirty cloth because they thought menstruation was dirty – and those cloths rarely got properly cleaned. In villages, where people got water from hand pumps, there was no private place to wash them. Drying them openly in the sun was not possible because of the same lack of privacy. It was a massive health problem, Goonj discovered, made worse because no one talked about it. So Goonj began to use the pads as part of an educational campaign, Not Just a Piece of Cloth.

Another innovative solution developed in India after a young girl asked at a UNICEF workshop why it wasn’t possible to have a vending machine that would give her a pad for a few rupees. UNICEF, to its immense credit, followed up. That led to the development of the Napivend machine, which now is available in many Indian schools. (And it also led to the development of a napkin disposal machine – because making napkins much more widely available means that there is a disposal problem akin to the waste management problem posed in western dumps by disposable baby diapers.)

Not only is the Napivend increasing girls’ school attendance and performance (because they are not missing days of school), but it turns out that it is helping the girls’ mothers as well. Many girlsbuy the pads in the vending machine and bring them home to their mothers as well. (And in other parts of India, women’s self-help groups make sanitary pads and use the sales proceeds to finance their other developmental activities.)

An opportunity wrapped in a problem
Talking about menstruation openly, and talking about menstruation as a developmental issue, thus has turned a problem into a solution that addresses a variety of problems all at once. It has made it possible to find practical, locally relevant solutions that are improving women’s health, improving girls’ school attendance and marks, and creating jobs for women (including women who are refugees, and elderly women) and sustainable local economic development.

A year ago, I was observing a small group of young men and women in a small village in Zimbabwe. They were asked, separately, to identify the biggest problems they faced, and to think about opportunities to address them. I was delighted to see that the young women had identified the lack of affordable sanitary protection as a problem for them. After they had finished their discussion, I told them about Makapads, and about the other varied projects throughout Africa and south Asia where making sanitary pads is providing income for elderly widows as well as providing affordable protection for young women. It was not a solution they had ever thought about. It turned the problem upside down – from just a problem, to an opportunity that could solve several problems at once.

For more reading:

Thoughts about shopping, and short-term vs long-term thinking

Have you ever thought about how you shop, and why you shop that way? Do you go to the supermarket once a week, list in hand, credit or debit card at the ready, fill up a shopping cart, load up your car, and then only visit local stores for an odd item here or there? That is how many people live in North America.

But in the much of the rest of the world, many people shop daily for meat, bread, milk and vegetables, at local corner stores that also will extend credit between pay days. In fact, that is how my grandmother shopped in Belfast in the 1920s and 1930s.

Being able to shop weekly, or in bulk, is possible because of many things that are often taken for granted. Firstly, it usually depends on having a car – you couldn’t lug all those goods home if you had to take the bus, or walk. Those big stores are usually located in the suburbs. Secondly, it depends on having a big fridge, and cupboards, to store all those goods so they don’t go bad. Thirdly, it depends on having a regular source of income, a bank account, and a credit or debit card, so you can buy in bulk, and that normally means you have a job.

In other words, you have an infrastructure that supports you in operating on a longer-term basis. But what if you don’t have a fridge, or storage room? What if there are no big stores? What if your income comes only on a daily basis or sporadically, when you can find work? What if you don’t have a car, and must walk? Even if there is a big store somewhere near you, you won’t be able to get there, you won’t have money to buy a lot at one time, and you won’t have anywhere to put it even if you could overcome those other two barriers.

Why does this matter?

In international development terms, I think it matters greatly. It took me quite some time to realize that many aid strategies make a lot of assumptions about how people live, and many of those assumptions are (as is normal) based on our own experience. Our strategies often focus on long-term (or at least medium-term) planning, in societies where people do their planning day to day – for a lot of very good reasons.

In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for example, inflation ran so rampant that the cost of a cup of coffee might effectively double in the course of a day. In this case, acting short term was the only sensible strategy for most people. The same thing happens in a society that is experiencing conflict. If you might have to flee your village tomorrow because an armed group comes down from the hills, you will grow different crops or cultivate differently than if you can count on being allowed to plant and harvest in peace.

Sometimes the changes in society leave people no practical choice but to live short term. A few years ago, I was observing the special presidential elections in Georgia. Our area extended up into the mountains near the Russian border. We visited even the most remote villages, despite the challenges of getting there, and in order to do so, we stayed overnight in one village. There was no hotel, of course, but there were lots of large houses – like the one we stayed in – which had radiators and indoor bathrooms and once had been heated when energy was cheap.

Now that energy was very expensive, and people no longer had an income because the economy had collapsed. Our hostess and her daughter were effectively living in the kitchen, which they could heat with a wood stove. They were using an outdoor toilet, and they got their water from the well. So, too, public offices were heated with tiny woodstoves vented out through windows, and we would often find the election workers huddled around the stove. The small amounts of money we paid our hosts for our overnight stay represented the equivalent of six months income for them.

Coping with collapsed infrastructure

One women’s group said that they had submitted a grant proposal to a North American organization. It included the cost of electricity for a small heater (and from our experience, that would barely keep them warm when huddled around it, let alone heat the whole room). The North American organization said that wasn’t a necessary expenditure.

Yugoslavia once had a brilliant health care system that was publicly funded. Regular checkups were done at factories and schools, and dentists visited schools regularly – in fact, most schools had a dentist’s chair somewhere in the building. When the country collapsed, the public health care system also was a casualty. Many doctors, in order to make a living, started private clinics and private pharmacies developed. It is a sobering thing to hear a mother tell you that she lives in fear that her child will become ill because she can’t afford the private clinic and pharmacy, and the public system has only the most basic drugs, equipment and services. I experienced this personally when I became sick while doing election observation in Ukraine and had to visit a local hospital. In order to treat me, the doctor first had to send my friend downstairs to the hospital pharmacy to buy the necessary items, with cash.

Yet, in situations where entire infrastructure systems have collapsed or almost collapsed and people have had to adopt short-term action as a way to cope, many international projects are focused on long-term planning – without recognizing that it takes some considerable time, and confidence, and a lot of coordinated economic and social activity before long-term planning can become a sensible choice for most local people.

The power of curiosity

Given that we live in a world where almost four billion people live on less than $2 a day, there has been a surprising lack of curiosity over the years about how they live and how they manage their money. There has been a great deal of prescribing of strategies and campaigns to ‘lift people out of poverty’, but little practical research that starts from the personal experience of those four billion people.

The late C.K. Prahalad began thinking about this question in 1995. He wondered why half a century of grand campaigns had not eradicated poverty. He concluded that it was because those campaigns approached the ‘poor’ as if they were victims who needed aid, rather than actors who could co-create change with governments, corporations and NGOS. Looking at the poor as victims denied them dignity, and also obscured the fact that there was a lot of money to be made at the bottom of the pyramid by companies who understood BOP consumers, he said.

He pointed out that BOP consumers usually bought goods daily, because they were paid or earned money daily. Thus they bought in small amounts – one reason why individual packages of many kinds of goods were selling so well in India. They usually shopped in the evening, after the work day ended, and at shops near them because they had no transportation. They respected quality of workmanship, because items they bought had to last for a long time. They often paid far more than the rich for essential items – in his survey of two neighbourhoods in India, for goods ranging from water to diarrhea medicine. And while many lived in poorly maintained homes, they had televisions and stereos and other items more commonly regarded as luxuries – because they were not able to get title to their land and home, and so it was not sensible for them to invest in fixing up a house that they might be evicted from.

His picture of how the poor lived was so dramatically different from the conventional picture, and his ideas about how to address their situation were so different from those of the conventional developmental economists, that for almost five years, no publisher would publish his book. Instead, his ideas circulated on the internet, where they caught the attention of corporations. Slowly corporations began to develop strategies to reach BOP consumers, and this often required them to do a great deal of ‘on the ground’ research. Groups of corporate staff began to spend time living in poor neighbourhoods, finding out how people lived, so they would know how to market to them.

Thus did the picture of the poor as people who were living hand to mouth and barely surviving begin to change. Corporations began to see them as consumers who were conscious of both price and quality, and who used shrewd strategies to spend the money they did have. The picture changed further in 2009, when a quartet of economists published Portfolios of the Poor – How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day.

Their book was researched collaboratively with families in Bangladesh, India and South Africa. They tracked the cash that came into these households on a daily basis and observed how the families managed this money. The most surprising observation was that the picture looked a lot different if you looked at cash management on a daily basis, rather than just the overall monthly or yearly picture. The strategies that people used – saving, borrowing, investing – were as sophisticated (possibly even more so) as the strategies used by most middle income families in North America or Europe. The only difference was in the amount of money involved.

The power of empowerment
I was thinking about these two ground-breaking pieces of research as I was listening to Paul Collier’s 2008 TED Talk about aiding the world’s poorest billion people by improving governance. He was talking about how governments can better manage the money that is flowing in from natural resource development. Yet most people who govern those states know little, practically speaking, about the lives of most poor people in their countries. Thus they are not equipped to design strategies to ‘co-create’ change that will benefit poor people in their countries, to use Prahalad’s term.

Organizations like the Grameen Bank, and BRAC, on the other hand, work so effectively because they start from an understanding of the people they work with. They understand that their needs are interconnected – education, work, and health – and they deliver programs that help people co-create change – individually, as groups, and then as communities. The brilliant Orangi pilot project in Pakistan got poor people to invest in installing piped sewers and water on land they didn’t even own by showing them how much money it cost them not to have these services. Thus, because it was in their interest, they themselves paid for a system that would have cost their government millions, borrowed from foreign banks.

Prahalad began doing his research before mobile phone use began to soar in the ‘developing’ world. Now, mobile phones have given BOP consumers power – power to see where to get the best prices for their crops or fish; power to transfer small amounts of money from village to village; power to learn about services to which they are entitled; power to access banking even outside big cities; and power to hold officials accountable. Mobile phones have given the ‘poor’ a way to access the dignity that Prahalad saw had been denied to them in the past.

Five years ago, the BBC’s Paul Mason made a trip around Kenya to investigate the impact of mobile phones. He noted that for people living in a country with good roads, the internet, and democracy, it was difficult to grasp how much change was being created. “‘How big a change have cellphones made to Africa?’ I shout the question at Isis Nyong’o, over the throbbing bassline of a Kenyan ragga track. She tells me calmly: ‘It’s had about the same effect as a democratic change of leadership.'”

More reading:

  • Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day, by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven. Published by Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2009.
  • The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid – Eradicating Poverty through Profits, by C.K. Prahalad. Published by Wharton School Publishing, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2006.
  • The Bottom Bilion: Why the Poorest Coutnries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, by Paul Collier. Published by Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Kenya in crisis. Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight business correspondent. January 8, 2007.

Tapping into the power of nature

Driving back along the road to Beni in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo one evening this spring, I was struck by the darkness. There were no lights until we got to the city. The reason is simple: there is no power in most of rural Africa. Even in the city of Beni, hotels only run generators for four or five hours at night because fuel is so expensive and organizations need their own generators in order to work in their offices during the day.

For people used to flipping a switch for light, driving along a brightly-lit street, or using their computers all day if they want, the realities of rural power supply are hard to imagine. Without power, you can work only in the daytime. Children can’t study at night. Women can’t work in their homes at night. Men can’t work outdoors in darkness. This is the reason why solar power has been so welcomed everywhere it has been introduced – because it changes peoples lives, even when they are far away from power grids and generators.

I was puzzled that, in southern Sudan and eastern DRC, solar power doesn’t seem to be widely used – at least in the places I was visiting.  In towns, I could hear the generators running, and thought about how much the fuel cost, whereas the sun’s energy is free once the systems to capture it are in place. I think it is only a matter of showing people how it works. In eastern DRC, some tiny communities are trying to design and build their own small hydro projects by themselves. India’s Barefoot College is training older African women to build, install and maintain solar power in their villages, creating jobs as well as light.

A different kind of natural resource is being harnessed in Rwanda, where less than 10 per cent of the country’s 9.7 million people are connected to the electricity grid. Rwanda has generation capacity of about 69 megawatts in total. Now a multi-million-dollar project is underway that, when completed, will by itself generate 100 megawatts of gas-fired electricity. This is likely to dramatically reduce the costs of electricity and even make it possible for Rwanda to export electricity.

Lake Kivu, which straddles the border between Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, is full of enough methane to provide Rwanda with power for most of the century. The methane was discovered in 1936 after people wondered why the lake had so few fish. Since 1963, a pilot plant has proven that methane can be extracted to provide power – in this case, at a local brewery. Last week, a 750-ton floating barge was launched and ground was broken for an accompanying onshore power plant. Once the extraction plant is built on the barge, methane gas from the depths of Lake Kivu will be piped to a power plant on the shore that will produce 25 megawatts. In the second phase of the project, another 75 megawatts will be added.

This unique project is an astounding example of how a problem can become an opportunity. Scientists have warned that, like the two other ‘exploding’ lakes in Africa, Lake Kivu poses risks to nearby communities if the methane gas isn’t released. But rather than just venting the methane, Project KivuWatt will extract and process the gas for power generation. Additionally, because it will help make more electricity available at a much lower cost, the project is likely to reduce the use of wood and charcoal and thus protect Rwanda’s forests as well as reducing Rwanda’s dependence on outside fuel.

Electricity, however, will go only where there are power lines, and in many rural areas of Africa, building those lines may take years. In the meantime, it would be great to see solar power being tapped much more widely in rural communities. Even at the individual level, solar lamps offer light for night time that allows students to study and men and women to work, while solar cooking means women don’t have to wander in search of wood. All of this increases security as well as helping to meet the Millennium Development Goals. It would be great to see the same creativity and initiative that has been put into the methane gas project also being applied to bringing solar power to rural villages in southern Sudan and eastern DRC.

For more about Project KivuWatt and Lake Kivu, see:

Why DDR should be a community-based activity, not a stand-alone activity

Many years ago now, when my younger daughter was attending elementary school in Yellowknife, the principal and vice-principal introduced an innovation – they began, as part of school assemblies, to reward pupils for good behavior. It changed the dynamic of the school – what got attention now was being helpful, pleasant, and constructive, rather than its opposite. The Buddhists would say it is a lesson about the importance of where you choose to focus your energy.

I think about that now, occasionally, when I reflect on demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) activities in countries where there has been conflict. Many international programs focus almost entirely on the former combatants, providing them with support and sometimes cash in exchange for demobilizing and disarming. There is very little attention paid to the community into which the former combatant is being returned; DDR is approached largely as a specialized, often stand alone, program. Other programs are expected to address the community problems.

Often this approach doesn’t work very well, however. Conflict worsens poverty, disrupts education for almost everyone, and destroys what infrastructure may have existed. Thus communities may resent the fact that former combatants, who helped to cause the damage, are getting help when they are not. Where there is a lot of insecurity, former combatants will sometimes use the money received for turning in their arms in order to buy more, because it is dangerous not to be able to defend yourself when your family may be at risk. In insecure areas, DDR buy-back programs thus may worsen insecurity. Sometimes promised support is not forthcoming when ex-combatants return home. And sometimes, without continuing support, ex-combatants find that the money or tools they received don’t help them to build a new life.

I wanted to talk about two examples of approaches that work differently, because they approach DDR as a problem that has disrupted community life and offer solutions that are community-based. One is from southern Sudan; one is from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The conflict in southern Sudan raged for decades. As part of it, young men who looked after their family’s cattle at cattle camps were armed by different actors, forming ‘white armies’ (so named because they covered themselves with ash to protect themselves against flies). They came to learn that they could use their gun to make a living by looting. When peace came, they had no other skills and no education. And because their behavior had alienated their families, they could not get help from relatives.

Finding a ‘win-win-win’ solution

One local NGO that understood the situation well took a different approach to DDR. In their area, the ‘white armies’ controlled the roads, looting from those who travelled. They were doing what they had learned to do during the war. In talking to these young men, the NGO realized that they could not imagine any alternative that would let them earn money. They had never been to school; all they knew was how to fight. It took time, but the NGO helped them find a solution that benefitted them and the communities along the road. Together, they created a trucking company, and when the young men realized that they could make much more money transporting goods than looting, they voluntarily handed over their guns.

This was a community-based solution to DDR, even though it was not formally called that, and it continues to work well. It addressed a number of problems at once – the young men’s lack of education, their need to earn a living, and the insecurity along the roads. It was one of those ‘win-win-win’ solutions, and it didn’t cost very much. In eastern DRC, the focus was similarly on finding a ‘win-win’ solution for communities and former combatants.

Communities resented programs that provided support only to ex-combatants when they also were suffering the effects of the conflict, and so they didn’t welcome them back. And because the combatants still in the bush stay in touch with those who return, the lack of welcome discouraged the rest from returning home. The NGO began to create a livelihood cooperatives program that would provide support for groups of former combatants, in activities such as carpentry, agriculture, and road maintenance that benefitted the whole community. They provided tools and support, not money, and provided it to groups, not individuals. They also worked with the community and the ex-combatants to teach them conflict resolution skills, so that they could solve problems constructively.

As the men worked together to create farms, make furniture and fix up the road, the communities began to change their views of the former fighters. They started to see them as people who could make a constructive contribution to community life. Some of the activities generated money that allowed the cooperative to help some of its members build their own houses, and create their own individual gardens.

This is a solution that recognizes that conflict divided communities and affected everyone, and that the solution must address that division and those effects. Not only is it providing a way for these men (and for women, too, as there are women’s projects that support female ex-combatants and the wives and widows of ex-combatants) to earn a living, it is providing a way for them to resume living as part of a community. And by doing so, it is encouraging those still in the bush to consider returning home. If their comrades have been welcomed, they think, they will be as well.

A final note

Returning home is important, not just for rebuilding rural communities, but for security in large cities as well. A recent analysis of DDR programs in Africa done by South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies notes that when groups of demobilized young men stay in the city, it can increase security risks there. The study, Reintegrating ex-combatants in the Great Lakes Region: lessons learned, is well worth reading for its insights into what works, and what doesn’t, in DDR practice.

(Disclosure: I know about these stories from Southern Sudan and DRC through my evaluation work with Peace Direct, a UK charity that supports locally-led peacebuilding. In eastern DRC, I have met with people from a number of the livelihood cooperatives. I heard about the Southern Sudan story from the NGO director who was directly involved in it.)