Participatory design to reduce open defecation
Through my time working with NGOs and investigating development projects around the world and through a journey of self reflection I observed how we constantly perpetuate colonialism via our work. How we impose our way of thinking and our solutions. As professionals who work with vulnerable populations we need to be aware of these dynamics.
Of course on the paper it is clear that the beneficiaries should be involved in all steps of the project through participative processes and so on. But the reality is that it doesn’t happen often, or at least not enough, due to a lack of time, a lack of resources, a lack of will or pressure from donors, etc.
I am currently working in the region of La Guajira in the north of Colombia. This part of the country is home to an indigenous population called the Wayuus. They live in the desert, dispersed in small communities.
The Wayuus suffer from a high infant mortality rate mainly due to malnutrition, the lack of water and poor hygiene practices that results in many diseases. One of the causes of infant mortality is open defecation that they have been practicing since the beginning of time. But as a consequence bacterias from feces in open air are transported through the hands, the animals, the water or the food to a new host. Therefore one of my jobs is to discourage this practice to reduce the infant mortality rate.
The common solution is to promote the use and the implementation of sanitation solutions such as latrines or toilets as we know it in the occidental world. So we need to teach beneficiaries on why and how to use it, monitor the implementation to see if they are using it well so that they can see the benefits. So basically we are teaching them how to use our product. But we never ask ourselves if it is the right solution for them? If there is another solution? We think we are the experts therefore we know it all, and anyway it’s too technical so they don’t have a word to say.
Here I am rephrasing a talk from Victoria Peter, that I think reflects the point I want to make and that inspired me for this activity:
How would you feel if there was constantly someone coming to you every time you had a problem and solving it with his solution because it worked elsewhere? Of course, you could be happy at first, but it makes you more and more dependent. No matter how well intended, this relationship will lead to a loss of willingness and a loss of creativity to create solutions. If you only give solutions, there is no creation. Creativity is the ability to imagine yourself in a different situation from what immediately meets the eye. Without creativity I cannot imagine what my products look other than the one I have in front of me. So by coming with ready-made solutions, we kill the space for creativity. So, people must reconquer and redesign the space for creativity. And one way to get there is design thinking.
With this in mind I developed an activity to be realized with the beneficiaries to encourage creativity and to allow them develop their own solutions regarding open defecation. This methodology inspired from design thinking can also be applied in many other topics.
Note: This activity needs to be preceded by an in depth context analysis to know the practices of the local population and a sensibilisation about the consequences of open defecation so that the beneficiaries understands that they need to make a change.
Total duration: 4 hours
1 . Introduction (5 minutes)
- Explain the agenda and the objective of the method
- Let the participants know the only rule: do not use the word latrine or toilet because if you want to create something new you have to give it another name.
2 . Icebreaker (10 minutes)
- Short and fun activity to put people in action — All together
3 . Preliminary activity (15 minutes)
- Define groups of 2 to 5 people
- Each group chooses a character typical from the context you are in ( young girl or young boy, mother, elderly man….) — In groups
- Define the characteristics of each character (name, age, family members, occupation, story…) — In groups
4 . Current situation (15 minutes)
- Mapping of the village/community/settlement — All together
- Define defecation zones and paths people take to defecate — All together
5 . Diagram of Contamination (20 minutes)
- Define all sources of contamination, the path bacterias can take to contaminate a new host and design a diagram — In groups
- Share the diagram with the other groups and create a general diagram with all the groups findings — All together
10 minute break
6 . Contamination barriers (30 minutes)
- With the help of the diagram of contamination, define what barriers could block each source of contamination. A barrier can block one or many sources of contamination — In groups
As an example here is the F diagram with the sources of contamination and the different barriers using toilets, hand washing and water purification. The idea of this activity is to do a F-diagram adapted to the local context and developed by the community itself to not impose any model.
7 . First prototype (30 minutes)
- Draw two solutions per group that use the barriers found in the previous activity, adapted to their character’s needs, one realistic and one ideal. The solutions don't have to be a single product, it can be a set of actions. — In groups
8 . Presentation and feedback (20 minutes)
- Presentation of each prototype to everyone and feedback from other groups — All together
10 minutes break
9 . Final solution (1 hour)
- Design of the final prototype with a storyboard explaining all the steps of the solution — In groups
- Presentation to the other groups and feedback — All together
10 . Trial (20 minutes)
- Trial of the solution by someone exterior to the group and feedback — All together
Continue the iteration of design and feedback until the final solution is found
It is not a perfect methodology but I hope it can get people thinking about how re-implementing creativity in development aid can lead to sustainable solutions adapted to the needs of the local population.
I will use the talk from Victoria Peter one last time:
This is not just to find a solution; it is a way to rethink and reshape the way we work by putting development back in the hands of the people concerned. We need to counteract the misleading picture of the rich, wealthy, western, educated person that comes to help the poor, uneducated beneficiaries. Try to take on the passenger seat and keep back, be more humble, more passive and constantly self-critical of what we bring. Learn to let go. The results of the process will not reflect what we judge good or just. When regaining their creative space beneficiaries will develop their solutions. We have to stop ,once and for all, to make our aid conditional on our ideas.
If we really believe that communities can be leaders in their development, we have to believe in their people and in their ability to make decisions and design solutions.
It is a methodology in process and for now I have only tried it with my field team so I am open to comments and improvements. I hope we can soon implement it in the field and I will update the article and the methodology with my findings.
Some of my team members commented after the first time trying the methodology:
- Think about urine as well, not only feces
- Think about animal feces as well
- In the diagram of contamination define sections so it is easier to define barriers