The Truth About Development Work

Here's the thing about development work: it's idealistic, it brings hope to people, it changes lives. But sometimes we feel more like our 11 year old friend in the picture above, Ishvod; frozen in a slow motion run down a long hot road... "Development work is slow." Truer words have never been said. Let me explain what I mean.

The past week was full of the inspirational plans that drive development. We make sure our plans are only created in response to expressed community needs so that we can be sure the people we help will be invested in the long-term sustainability of the project. We meet with partners, talk about issues, talk to the people facing the issues and ask them what they want. The first reason this incredibly important work is slow is because while talking about problems and creating projects to address them, you end up seeing things that make the world as you know it slow down right before your eyes as you struggle to fit what you are seeing into a paradigm you understand.


These buildings hiding behind a beautiful jungle of trees represent one of those slow motion moments for us this week. My co-coordinator and I met with a new partner last week that we are trying to collaborate with on several public health projects and medical camps. This organization has been awarded India's Best NGO award for the past two years in a row (that's not the actual name of the award but it basically means they are the best). They have been around for about 35 years and they focus on a certain type of development work with targeted interventions for high risk populations. Their focus are HIV/AIDS populations - people with a high risk of contraction or people who have already contracted. Recently, this has led them to become a very active presence in some "migrant construction worker colonies." When they told us that exact phrase in our meeting with them last week, I didn't quite understand what it meant. I understood all of the words individually, but I didn't know where these colonies existed, what they were for, or what they were like. So our partner took us to one of the colonies (colony just means neighborhood or village). We drove for about an hour and a half in the horrible Hyderabad traffic, and arrived at the foot of some massive construction sites for gigantic apartment and business buildings like the ones in the distant background of the above picture. These buildings were probably over fifty stories, with hundreds of apartments in each building and ten, fifteen, even twenty of these buildings within a mile or two of each other. Like may construction sites in any given country, there were big barriers places around the large construction site. Here they are made of tin painted blue. They are probably at least ten feet tall and you cannot get in without going through a heavily secured entrance, providing finger prints, and going through some turn styles past the guard house. We have seen similar construction sites in Cambodia. I always assumed the tin barrier/walls were to keep people out of the dangerous construction sites, but I was most definitely wrong.


Our partner had clearance to go in and so we were allowed in as temporary guests. We walked through the secured entrance and found about one square kilometer (about a half mile) of tin "houses," though they didn't qualify as that. The entire square kilometer was made up of rows of rooms, 5x5ft, with ten construction workers staying in each room. This particular colony had 6,000 people living within this square kilometer. The rooms had one door, no windows, and low ceilings. We walked up and down the small alleys between these rows of tin rooms and our partner began explaining the work they were doing there. Those construction workers are all migrants from other Indian states. They leave their families and come to Hyderabad to work for a construction company for six months at a time, living in these "migrant construction worker colonies." They come here because the pay is apparently better than most other Indian states: 450 rupees per day (about $7 USD). Our partner works there because within the tin walls of these colonies, these construction workers are at an extremely high risk of contracting HIV and other STIs. They eat, sleep, work, and try to find entertainment, often times through use of drugs and alcohol, sex, homosexual sex, and gambling. Prostitution is a very big problem in these colonies, and the women who cook for the entire colony are often abused and forced into having sex with entire rooms full of male construction workers. Our partner has established a system of peer leaders, construction workers who want to stop the spread of HIV/STIs and have agreed to go door to door meeting with other workers and educating them on HIV/STI prevention and focusing on condom promotion. Three times a week they hold a meeting for their peer leaders and anyone else who wants to attend for trainings and additional education on those topics. Every few weeks they hold free health clinics to provide general check up and STI testing for the construction workers. The work they are doing is taxing yet amazing, and they have seen great successes in their few years working in these colonies. 


When we got into our cab to go home from this colony, it was one of those moments where our whole perception of the world slowed down for a bit and made us rethink what we had previously thought. Development work is slow for this reason, and because addressing these well hidden problems takes years and years of time.  Here's a picture of some nice fields and palm trees. Take a breather.


Here are a few more reasons why development work is slow. It pours rain and makes the plot of land you will be turning into a garden a total mud puddle for a few days so you can't plant what you plan on planting. Language barriers are real. Unexpected government school inspections take priority over your nutrition classes. Masons have multiple contracted jobs at one time so they often get mixed up and tell you the wrong day to come work on the soilets they are building. You walk the two miles to the village only to find that the mason will be gone all day, and the next day, and they next day after that. Then you go back three days later and he was actually there the day before but will not be there again for two more days.  And then sometimes there are just complete miscommunications and the big 10x7 ft garden that you finally planted gets cemented over because the school you're working with forgot to tell the workers that were paving their walkway to cement around the garden and not right on top of it....


This was the garden before it got paved... gardens aren't meant to get paved!

All of those things really do happen. They actually all happened last week! But our hopes are not yet dashed or cemented down in the depths of destroyed gardens! We ended up spending quite a bit of our time prepping for the classes we will be teaching this week, and no preparation time is wasted. It may feel like it makes the work go slower when you'd rather be out there teaching or building or planting or working. But in reality, the prep time makes all of the difference.

Yesterday was the first day of a new week with no forecasted rainstorms, no government school inspections, and no alternative plans for the masons! And it proved to be a fantastic day where all of our prep work paid off. We delivered two professional, interactive, and educational nutrition classes: one to the pre/post-natal women that we were supposed to teach last week, and one to the Indo American School 6th and 7th graders as the first lesson in the four-part holistic health program that we are teaching to the 6th-10th graders there! It was a blast, the kids loved it, and they now know what kinds of food are healthiest for them to eat, how to wash their hands, fruits, veggies, and dishes effectively, and how much water they need to drink daily (among other important things). They even took the challenge to avoid eating junk food for the next two weeks when we will teach them the second lesson in our program (about Physical Education)! Without the hours of preparation that went into writing these curricula, creating interactive lesson plans, and practicing the delivery of the information and facilitation of the activities, we could have spent more hours working in the hot sun but we would have been far less impactful while teaching our lessons. Development work is slow, but most definitely worth it.

We're on to bigger and better things this week, and bigger and better challenges as well! Each moment of progress and celebration in development work is met with new challenges to be overcome and issues to be addressed. But if it could be done perfectly, we wouldn't be here right now because all of the world's problems would have already been resolved. Here's to another day and week of slow and steady problem solving!

Please enjoy some pictures from our week :)




A very blurry picture from a very bumpy auto ride (autos aka tuk tuks, rickshaws, mini-taxis)! 



We were craving American food SO bad that we drove an hour to a TGI Fridays and had delicious hamburgers and fries (which still tasted a lot like Indian food, but it still hit the spot).



You can't tell, but that burger has two massive patties on it... and he ate the whole thing #proud. 



After one of our pre/post-natal nutrition classes, some of the women stuck around to give us mango juice and then eat lunch!



To make it to the leprosy village where we help treat wounds and change bandages for several lepers, we walk about a mile down this beautiful road lined with rice fields and big trees. We do this twice a week and I love it every time! 

 More pictures of this awesome road...





One of the villages we work in! There's a massive maze of roads that look just like this one, which makes finding where we're supposed to go quite the adventure.



Ishvod, the 11 year old son of the nurse who is in charge of bandage changing for the lepers. She trains us and he translates (sort of)! He simultaneously plays soccer and learns cool handshakes from us while helping us learn how to change the bandages. 



More of this awesome road!


Some of Isvhod's friends. They bike with us while we walk back down the mile-long road to the main road where we can get an auto home.