This post was written by Wendy Stickel, a member of the Green Empowerment Board of Directors, about a board member trip to the Philippines and Malaysian Borneo with Executive Director Andrea Johnson in May 2017. Wendy has worked in international development for over 30 years, including overseas assignments and extensive travel with USAID and the World Bank in Latin America and Southern Africa.Standing at the check-in counter at the Portland airport, I could hardly contain my excitement. There I was, with tickets to the Philippines and Malaysian Borneo in hand and a full itinerary of visits to meet Green Empowerment regional staff and to see a selection of GE’s water and energy projects. It had been eight months since the idea was first broached that I might be making this trip, and now it was suddenly very real… I’d gotten shots, assembled a hot weather wardrobe, managed a quick skim of the history and culture sections of the travel guides, and now I was at the Portland airport, with plans to meet Linda Boise (GE Board Chair) and Andrea Johnson (GE’s Executive Director) in Manila.Our itinerary would take us first to the Philippines, where we would meet our team in Manila, then fly to the island of Leyte where we would visit four project sites in different parts of the island. Then we would return to Luzon to visit a fifth site, a three-hour drive from Manila. All five sites in the Philippines were clean water installations, with storage reservoirs, filtration systems, communal taps, rain-harvesting tanks, and, in some cases, latrines, all built between 2014-2016.We were to then fly to Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. After meeting our local NGO partner TONIBUNG, we would drive into the tropical highlands to visit three remote sites located in and along the border of a protected national forest, where GE had installed micro-hydro systems to supply electricity to village households. The systems we saw in Borneo were installed in 2005 (Terian), 2010 (Buayan), and 2014 (Tiku).Taken together, the eight communities represented a good sample of the kinds of projects GE has implemented in its Asia program. Also, because some of the systems we visited had only recently been completed and turned over to the villagers (which was the case for potable water installations in the Philippines), while others (in Borneo) had been operating for considerably longer, the visits in effect offered snapshots of villagers’ responses to the projects taken at different stages in their experience of managing them and enjoying their benefits. The visits also offered very real experience in some of the challenges of “last mile” development, of working to deliver and sustain development services to villagers in remote locations, typically many hours away from the nearest local government offices and difficult to access.Linda had initially floated the idea for the trip following my very first meeting as a GE Board member, in September 2016. Linda and I had met about a year earlier, beginning what became a series of conversations about the challenges of delivering development services to remote villages in a sustainable way. With many years of experience working with USAID and other donors, I appreciated her concern about sustainability. I grew to understand that GE had built its implementation approach, and its strong reputation, around its commitment to work in close collaboration with local implementation partners. I had come to believe that this kind of approach was crucial to sustainability, and was eager to see what the work looked like on the ground. I jumped at the idea of joining this trip as a chance to learn more about how the organization does its work.
Meeting the team in Manila was the first step to filling in the picture for me, and a big clue to GE’s reputation for successful implementation. Jojo Fajardo, the Philippines Program Manager, has assembled a team of energetic and capable development professionals to implement GE’s program for the USAID-funded CREST project. Our conversations as we travelled the next three days to visit projects confirmed their deep commitment to the values that define the GE approach: social justice, local leadership, and sustainability. It was evident in their enthusiasm as they reported to us on their implementation progress, in the warmth and respect with which they engaged with the villagers and local officials, and in their eagerness to learn about how the system was working, what issues were faced, and what plans they had for their villages. At each site, GE’s community organizer, Rocky Peteros, supported by Daisy Llano, facilitated community discussions about how the system was working, what problems they were having, and what difference the availability of clean water had made in their lives.Our visits to the project sites in Leyte were greeted with much celebration and food, with residents demonstrating a great deal of community pride in the installations. There were colorful banners, crowds of smiling villagers, warm welcomes by the barangay chiefs and members of the water committees, garlands of flowers, and tables filled with coconut drinks, snacks made of sweetened hill rice wrapped in banana leaves, and pots filled with stews made with pumpkin and chicken or fish. After spending some social time with the villagers at each site, we then took a tour of the new systems and improved facilities. In one location, we were shown where students and parents were growing vegetables in a community garden using water from the rain-harvesting tank.
In every case, village water committees had been registered and were functioning, collecting the modest fees that had been established to cover stipends for one or two villagers who had been trained under the project to operate and maintain the system, and to make repairs when needed. Substantial amounts from collected fees had already accumulated in two of the villages to pay for repairs when necessary. Everything we saw and heard during our visits made it clear that there was very real ownership of these systems by the community, and even pride. During our visit to Santo Nino, a parade of dozens of villagers led us on a narrow trail through tropical rainforest for over 30 minutes to show off their new ram pump, the village’s pride and joy!Evidence of the success of the GE model was evident during our visits in Malaysia too. GE’s local partner in the country, TONIBUNG, builds on a long history of community development in Sabah, where indigenous peoples have had to mobilize to protect communal rights to their land and the natural resources on which their livelihoods and traditions depend. Founded in 1991, TONIBUNG emerged from this history as an organization with deep roots in the indigenous culture and a commitment to strengthening the capacity of villagers to design and adapt solutions to improve their own lives and livelihoods.We had a delightful chance to learn about TONIBUNG and its origins as guests at its in-house party on the occasion of the traditional rice harvest festival. In Sabah, the rice harvest festival is an occasion for much partying, embracing both old traditions (the elders and other hosts dressing in handsome black jackets and headdresses, performing traditional dances, playing bamboo flutes, gongs, and drums, games of arm wrestling, and ample supplies of rice wine) as well as some new ones (karaoke, karaoke, and more karaoke!) TONIBUNG also took the party as a fundraising opportunity, and celebrated its own “harvest” of project achievements. We enjoyed lots of good food, a chance to meet many members of TONIBUNG’s extended “family”, and even learned the traditional “eagle” dance.
Our project visits in Sabah had considerably less pomp and circumstance than those in Leyte, possibly reflecting the different village culture, or simply because the projects there have been in place longer. Nevertheless, there was always a core group of villagers, including representatives from the village micro-hydro committees, prepared to meet with us. Since the systems had been in place for three to ten years, affordable access to electricity had by then affected virtually everyone, and they were eager to share their stories.The village women, especially, were not shy about describing how access to electricity had changed their lives. In particular, they pointed to the benefits of having washing machines and freezers, the latter appreciated for the time-savings in providing and preserving food for their families given their very remote circumstances. In Buayan, some enterprising women had even begun to make ice cream — no doubt extremely popular where temperatures average 90 degrees Fahrenheit most of the year! Women also valued the lighting available in the evenings, which affords their children more time for homework and results in notable improvements in school performance. It also allows women time to work on traditional crafts to sell to visitors (like us!) or even on order from further afield. Irene, the local pre-school teacher in Buayan, who also serves as secretary and treasurer for the village micro-hydro committee, appreciated that she could now make copies of handouts for her young students, and noted, though somewhat ruefully, that having TVs made it easier for families to entertain young children. (NatGeo TV was said to be a favorite, which may make it easier for some of us to swallow that particular development outcome).There were entrepreneurial aspirations too. In Tiku, the villagers hoped their electricity could allow them to develop a local pub for what they envision eventually as a tourist area overlooking the river. (While we agreed wholeheartedly that the site is quite lovely, our white-knuckled drive up from Kota Kinabalu along a deeply rutted and precarious track suggests this plan is a little optimistic, at least until the road is paved!)
Finally, everyone agreed that having electrical lighting that extended the day allowed them to be more productive and made life more interesting in general. We observed villagers of all ages enjoying the benefits of internet connectivity, which in turn depended on having affordable electricity to keep their smartphones charged. The young men of the village especially valued having access to TV news from beyond the small village, and to YouTube videos that they said allowed them to learn new skills, such as carpentry. While it is hard to quantify those benefits, it is indisputable that access to affordable power has made village life easier, making it less likely that young people will be pulled to the cities and towns.The acceptance of responsibility and the sense of ownership that we witnessed in all of the villages we visited reflect a degree of confidence and personal agency that the villagers themselves bring to the table, and is critical to the sustainability of these types of projects. The way TONIBUNG and GE work builds that sense of ownership by designing the systems in close collaboration with the villagers, and by steadily building technical capacity in the village to handle operation and maintenance, simple repairs, and design of new and/or enhanced micro-hydro systems.So now, barely three weeks after our last day in the field, I am sitting at a computer in my comfortable home, with lights blazing and surrounded by appliances of every description, and where I can count on having safe water to drink flow out of the tap whenever I wish. The world I am describing in this post—these humble communities where the villagers were so welcoming and generous to us, and from whom we learned so much—feels very, very distant and it is impossible not to feel deeply grateful—for all that we have in our own lives, certainly. But grateful also for all of the people who have contributed to making GE the organization it has become, enabling it to do the good work it has done, in the way it has done it. GE is a very special brand of development organization, taking on the very toughest development challenge out there, to carry development that “last mile” to those who are living in the most remote places, who are the least served, and are still waiting for basic services such as clean water and affordable electricity. And to design and refine an approach to ensure that “last mile” development can be sustained. This trip affirms for me that the GE approach of working through local partners is the best hope for meeting that challenge.