Dancing in the rain: encountering the strength of community weavers in Nepal

by: Brian Hickey

It started pouring. My teammate Belen and I had barely started our descent from a one-hour, strenuous hike straight uphill when the rain came. For obvious reasons, we stuck out as foreigners among the local Nepali population, even more so considering our unpreparedness for the fast-moving rain clouds amidst the start of Nepal’s monsoon season. Nepalis around us put on their rain jackets, walked around with umbrellas, or simply ignored the rain. Instead of cursing our luck, Belen and I decided to embrace the rain and smile at the locals trying to stifle their laughter at us soaked westerners. As we continued our descent, we ran into a group of young women walking and dancing with no rain gear. We joined the women reveling in the weather conditions.

Throughout our past month in Nepal, we have heard stories of resilience in communities recovering after natural disasters. We have listened to stories about individuals continually rebuilding their shelter and livelihoods four years after the devastating 2015 Nepali earthquake. We have heard these stories from grandparents who lost grandkids and widows wanting to serve us tea because we remind them of their kids who are now gone. I have witnessed the faith of the small Catholic community in Nepal reconstructing a beautiful church that was lost among the earthquake, bomb, and arson attacks. A community that passionately celebrates Mass and has formed a tight-knit parish family despite adversity.

A church in Nepal.
The Catholic church, once lost among the earthquake, bomb and arson attacks.

The person I have learned the most from in Nepal has been our translator, Ramchandra. Ramchandra is not too much older than me and is soon to be a father of two. He is a hard worker and willing to do whatever it takes to assist us in our research.  During one of our long talks about life and personal desires for future impact in our careers, Ramchandra began speaking about his efforts leading citizen initiatives in his community. Ramchandra, along with several other driven community members, was concerned by the distance people with debilitating diseases had to travel to reach medical care at a hospital. They are what bestselling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to as “community weavers.”

Ramchandra and Brian Hickey, a Notre Dame graduate student, standing in front of a Catholic Relief Services building in Nepal.
Ramchandra and I at the CRS building.

Ramchandra’s group, the weavers, inspired the community to give out of their valuable income (some living in poverty) to build a center for the sick to have proper rest and support during their journey to obtain medical care at the hospital. While these community members do not know the majority of the people who will benefit from the new community center, Ramchandra is proud to know he does not necessarily have to run for political office or have a position with a large NGO to see a need and do something about it.

Ramchandra and his fellow community members highlight a theme we have consistently observed in Nepal: communities are banded together by weavers like Ramchandra who assist fellow citizens in their time of need. They rejoice as others rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.

Nepali locals working on a project together.
Nepali community members working on a participatory activity with Ramchandra.

LEARNING TO EMBODY THE WEAVER SPIRIT

This month, we are continuing our research with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) through the Keough School’s i-Lab in a state in India that has suffered from recurring cyclones, floods, as well as attacks on minority religious communities. With our work, we hope to discover the effects of communities constantly having to grapple with devastating human-made and natural disasters.

A morning sunrise in the mountains of Nepal.
A morning sunrise in the mountains during our fieldwork.

As Belen and I seek to develop a tool for CRS to help households reconstruct shelter after major traumatic experiences, we must keep in mind the importance of community weavers. We must ask how organizations like CRS can assist households and communities in rebuilding their shelter and livelihoods so that when the rain, or oth­er difficult times come, community members can continue to dance knowing a brother or sister will soon come with arms open wide to help. Perhaps, when we come home, we can also look at our community and neighborhoods in the United States and discover how we can develop as weavers like Ramchandra.

How to evaluate success in development work

by: Joshua Pine

Youthful optimism. Eager expectation. Passion to learn and to serve. As I stepped off the plane in Mexico City, these were the emotions that engulfed me. Having lived for nearly twenty years as an American in China, I had never traveled to Latin America before and was excited to broaden my global horizon. While I knew the exotic appeal of a new country, replete with street tacos and mariachi bands, would eventually wear off, I did not expect a sobering reality check to set in on our first day of work.

My team and I are partnering with Habitat for Humanity International’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter, exploring ways to increase the quality of homes among low-income communities through market-based interventions. Drawing heavily from our training in design thinking from the Master of Global Affairs’ Integration Lab, we set out the first day to engage directly with the marginalized communities we aimed to serve by visiting homeowners in Tláhuac, a poorer neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City. Without any background in Spanish, my assigned role during these visits was to observe our surroundings and take detailed notes. After the interview, my teammate would provide me with a quick summary translation.

Joshua Pine visits a household to conduct interviews about housing in Tláhua, Mexico.
Visiting households to conduct interviews in Tláhua, Mexico.

When we entered the first home, I began furiously jotting down every detail into my notebook: a two-story home with multiple generations living together, several pet dogs, a Wii video game console, a tile floor. No detail was too small, and I was ready to do my part in contributing to the project! As the day went on, however, my inability to understand the language began to weigh more heavily as a source of frustration. Whenever someone would make a joke and the room lit up with pearls of laughter, I forced a smile even though I did not know what was happening. As that first week continued, my enthusiasm began to wane as I allowed myself to wallow in self-pity and question why I was even here. How was I adding value to the project when all I was doing was taking up team resources by having someone translate for me? How could I fulfill my role as the team’s leader with regards to communication and design thinking if I couldn’t directly engage or empathize with those we were seeking to serve?

Joshua Pine stands by a fiber cement sample house in Mexico City.
Exploring a fiber cement sample house that is the new type of disaster-resilient material that our project is encouraging lower-income families to adopt.

As I was reflecting on these questions, I heard one of my favorite Christian worship songs—“You Say,” by Lauren Daigle—on the speaker in the mall we were walking through:

“I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough

Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up

Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?

Remind me once again just who I am, because I need to know”

These lyrics caused me to realize I had been evaluating my success precisely as the “sum of every high and every low” by asking myself whether I had individually contributed to promoting the goals of the project. This self-evaluation framework reflected the system utilized in academic classroom settings, where you have a fixed period of time (a semester) to achieve a set goal (learning the material), with frequent tests to ensure that you are making progress towards that goal. For my research project, I had a month to complete the first segment of our project in Mexico, and based upon my self-assigned midterm exam, I felt like I was failing.

PROCESS- AND TEAM-ORIENTED METRIC OF SUCCESS

As I discussed my feelings of frustration with my teammates, they provided invaluable encouragement and helped to point out areas where I had been able to contribute. Of more importance than this individual encouragement, however, was the realization that my metric for success had been based upon the fundamental fallacy that the success of the project depended on me as an individual.

Joshua Pine looks out at the Teotihuacan pyramids on the horizon.
Visiting the Teotihuacan pyramids.

A central question within design thinking encapsulates this form of communal recognition by encouraging us to always ask, “How might we…?” rather than “How might I…?” This seemingly simple insight was powerful in helping me view my worth less as an exam evaluating individual success, but rather as a relational perspective measuring my ability to add value to the team as a whole. Expanding the scope of “team” beyond my immediate teammates to include our partners in Mexico helped me develop a more communal, relational perspective. I did not need to solve the problem of inadequate housing in a month, but rather contribute to an ongoing process that had been happening before I arrived and would continue long after.

Rather than evaluating success within an individualistic, goal-oriented model, my experiences so far this summer have helped to focus more on a collective, process-oriented model of success wherein my goal is to help support my team and add value to an ongoing process.

i-Lab Update: Students Return to Campus

by: Mark Stevens

How do you sum up a year-long experience where you’ve worked with a team of others, traveled to multiple countries, and examined solutions to some of the biggest challenges in the world today? This is exactly what we asked the students in the i-Lab to do on September 13—in five minutes or less, in front of the entire Keough School.

Over the summer the i-Lab sent 23 Master of Global Affairs students, in 7 project teams, to 14 countries across 5 continents, to work with organizations on the frontlines. Upon their return to campus, we gathered in the i-Lab space to let students tell their stories, explain why their projects are so important to their partner organizations, and discuss what they learned in the field and the impact they hope to achieve.

Our students were, in short, extraordinary. Here is a brief recap of their projects and stories:

Continue reading i-Lab Update: Students Return to Campus

Reflections on a field excursion to Bantayan Island in the Philippines

by: Jenna Ahn

Master of Global Affairs student Jenna Ahn is working with teammates Steven and Juanita, in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter at Habitat for Humanity International, on a project to design and test a pre-crisis market analysis toolkit for the shelter sector. A better baseline understanding of local markets can guide both pre-crisis programming to build resilience and post-crisis interventions for shelter in sustainable and scalable ways. The team spent two months in Cebu Province in the Philippines conducting interviews and gathering data.


“Hello mamser!” We turned around to see who was calling us with what came to be my favorite gender neutral and delightfully formal Filipino greeting.

It was the woman we interviewed earlier that day. She was grinning and waving at us.

“Hello, Ma’am!” We called back.

As we continued on the dirt road, we encountered other familiar faces from our previous interviews: a husband and wife at dinner who greeted us, counter managers at neighboring hardware stores, and a few friendly nods in the street. We were a motley crew—four Filipinos, two Americans, and a Colombian—and I assumed news of our arrival had spread through the small neighboring barangays of Santa Fe and Pooc. In just five days conducting over 70 interviews, we were still very much foreigners, but I couldn’t help feeling that in our five days in Bantayan Island we had glimpsed a tiny part of the integrated ecosystem of the shelter market.

We had planned to track the supply chain backwards: from households accessing the local market to reconstruct their homes to the hardware stores, construction laborers, and NGOs who aided them in the process. While a relatively linear strategy, our interviews elicited a much more complex reality of relationships, motivations, and obstacles that left us with more questions than answers. What follows is a brief snapshot of just a few of the people we met along the way. *

Habitat for Humanity TCIS Philippines
One of our translators, Miguel, leading a household interview in Cebuano using questions programmed in a data collection app.
Household

Despite the blaring speakers next door playing “Despacito” on loop, Ma’am Castillo was calm and thorough as she told us her house was the only one in the neighborhood that had survived Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. It wasn’t because her house was particularly durable, she admitted— her house was a mixture of recycled plywood, woven bamboo, and corrugated iron—but because her family had been the only to remain in her neighborhood despite the evacuation warning so God had protected her. She had tried to make some improvements to the house, but her limited budget and compounding loans made things difficult, especially when the price of materials and construction workers skyrocketed after the disaster. How was she supposed to hire a skilled mason if NGOs were willing to pay their masons 150% of the pre-typhoon daily rate?

Construction Laborer

Around the corner at a construction site, we met with Cuya Jason as he took a short break from laying concrete blocks. A hardworking mason and father of four children, Cuya explained that he had learned his trade by shadowing his father as a helper, and eventually took on the title of mason himself. After Typhoon Yolanda decimated many of the homes in his community, Cuya helped to rebuild using the same construction techniques used before the typhoon. He hadn’t changed his building strategies, but why would he? He did what all the other masons did, and ultimately they were all limited by budgets. If anything, Cuya had to explain to households that forgoing reinforcing steel bars altogether would be unethical. When asked if he would be interested in training workshops to improve his trade, Cuya smiled—perhaps assuming I was searching for a “yes”—and shook his head. Maybe, but he didn’t have time and couldn’t lose out on his daily wage. After all, he needed to get food on the table.

Hardware Store

I stood at the counter of RJ’s Hardware and I could tell Até Maria was still convinced that we might sell her business secrets to the other stores in town, but she spoke to us anyway. Like any good business manager, Até closely observed changes in customer behavior and demand when ordering stock. It’s not that she wanted to sell substandard materials, she said matter-of-factly, but it’s what the people could afford. It’s what they wanted. She hoped another typhoon wouldn’t hit the community, but we both knew that it would significantly benefit her business.

An inside view of a local hardware store in Bantayan displaying its stock.

We interviewed many others along the way—some with similar stories and still others with different experiences. Ultimately, we found that 60% of households we spoke with did not believe their house would withstand the next climate disaster. And though we must acknowledge there are no easy solutions to the fragile and interconnected relationships within the shelter market in places like Bantayan Island, I do know that the need to act now to benefit people like Ma’am Castillo, Cuya Jason, and Até Maria is central to a commitment to human dignity.

In the end, a home is not simply four walls and a roof where families are forced to live in fear of devastation. Lives are not worth saving only after inevitable climate disasters strike. If we take seriously the Keough School’s mission towards integral human development and protecting the inherent dignity of all persons (especially vulnerable persons), we must work before the next disaster to increase access to dignified housing.

Habitat for Humanity Philippines
Team photo after our presentation in the Habitat for Humanity International office in Manila.

*all names have been changed for confidentiality

My Experience in the Philippines: A Unity of Opposites

by: Juanita Esguerra Rezk

If you asked me to summarize my experience of living and working in the Philippines in one sentence, I would say, “In the past month I have experienced both extreme feelings of familiarity and strangeness.” Beyond the contradictions, this combination has been an interesting opportunity to reflect on myself and my future professional life.

Getting out of my comfort zone

For my Master of Global Affairs i-Lab project, I am working in partnership with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter (TCIS) at Habitat for Humanity to improve how market analyses are conducted by international aid organizations within the shelter sector. Specifically, we are testing the market analyses process in one of the areas hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Despite my prior experience with humanitarian assistance, diving deeply into the shelter sector has certainly pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

Shelter
Mapping the construction materials most widely used in northern Cebu.

You are probably inquiring why would a market analysis be relevant at all? I will try to answer briefly: When a crisis occurs (after an earthquake, a typhoon or a massive displacement), local market actors are often the principal means by which people obtain essential items they need to recover and adapt. In the past, this was largely ignored by international aid organizations, who often imported and distributed goods and provided services directly to those affected. These actions bypass and hinder the resources and capacities of local communities. For this reason, in recent years, humanitarian organizations have started to support and use local market supply chains in their aid response.

Advocates for this type of market intervention argue that it supports livelihood opportunities, improves economic rehabilitation and helps international organizations adapt better to the local context. This all sounds great, right? However, to support such interventions, organizations need to understand the local markets, and when it comes specifically to the shelter and housing sector, aid organizations are still struggling to do so. That is where our partnership with TCIS comes in.

The experience of a Colombian in the Philippines: The familiar within the unfamiliar

Shelter
One of the masons we interviewed is showing us the tools he uses to ensure the quality of his work. The device he is holding is a plumb bob (called “tun tun” in Cebuano), which is used to make sure columns are straight.

During our time here, we have been conducting interviews with families, masons, carpenters, local hardware stores and wholesalers to map the capacity of the local market systems to meet the housing demands of low-income households (including land tenure, financing, access to materials and labor). I am marveled by how willing people have been to share their knowledge, thoughts and experiences with us.

Every time we conduct interviews with households, families usually offer us a snack. This gesture has immediately transported me back to my days of fieldwork in Colombia, where I was always offered a cup of coffee and some bread or cookies when I visited someone’s home. More generally, Filipino architecture, cuisine and religious traditions— strongly influenced by Spanish colonization— together with the warmth of the people and their commitment to build a more peaceful and inclusive society amid challenging conditions of inequality and violence, have made me feel at home.

Shelter
A photo of our team with the first family we interviewed.

Despite these similarities, and the fact that most first and last names in the Philippines are in Spanish, I have not encountered a single person who speaks the Spanish language. Getting by in the cities has been surprisingly easy for our team, as almost everyone we interact with speaks English. Yet, in rural areas the use of English decreases significantly. Because of this, we are conducting our interviews in Cebuano, the language most widely spoken in Cebu province. To make this possible, we have a Cebuano on our team, who has not only acted as a translator, but has also helped us navigate our daily life here and helped us establish contact with different stakeholders.

Although it has been great working with him, it has also been frustrating not being able to participate in these interviews because it limits our capacity to build relationships and to analyze the situation from first- hand information. This is a completely new experience for me, and it has really made me reflect on the importance of relationships, cultural sensitivity and language training in development work.

Shelter
Our new team member Leonell, conducting an interview with a family about their experience in rebuilding their house after Typhoon Yolanda.

Reflections from a safe exposure

Although there is no doubt that international agencies supporting local economies is a step forward in the process of localizing development, I cannot help but wonder if these solutions are still rooted within the systems and power relations that intrinsically constitute an obstacle for the development of these communities. Does the analytical assessment of local markets by outside organizations inherit certain biases? One of the biggest challenges we face is to resist being absorbed by a technocratic mindset that ignores other aspects of social dynamics. Focusing solely on technical issues becomes a barrier for change because it eclipses the human components and does not contest the unequal power relations that hinder structural transformations.

Strangely, one of the things that I have found most enriching about this experience is the feeling of discomfort. This project has forced me to venture into a new region, a new culture and a new sector. Being here on our own, but having the support of the Keough School and our advisor Tracy Kijewski-Correa, has been a safe exposure and in my case, a chance to experiment with a completely different professional career path. Every day I ask myself how I would feel if this were my long-term job and what would be different if that were the case. I am sure these reflections will continue to grow as I continue my experience here and will certainly be useful as I start to think about what I want to do after I graduate.

 

First Days in the Philippines

 

by: Steven Wagner

Steven Wagner is working with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter at Habitat for Humanity International. Steven and his teammates, Jenna and Juanita, will conduct pre-crisis market analyses for commodities and services in the housing sector, with the ultimate goal of drafting a toolkit for guiding humanitarian actors in replicating this analysis. The team is conducting fieldwork in the Philippines, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate disasters.

If you are reading this blog entry hoping to learn about my first impressions of an exotic locale, or a description of the quaint local market that I walk through each morning, or my difficulties in acclimating to a foreign language and cuisine, then you are probably going to be disappointed.

Habitat for Humanity
Jenna using any surface available to take notes.

I have only been in the Philippines for a few days as of writing this entry. To be more specific I have been staying in Makati City, the country’s financial hub located within the greater Metro Manila region. To be even more specific I have been living in a skyscraper, surrounded by more skyscrapers. Across the street from my hotel tower is an enormous complex of about nine different interconnected malls, likely occupying a few square kilometers of real estate.

MAKATAI CITY, THE FINANCIAL HUB

Habitat for Humanity
Team Habitat creates a new i-Lab in Makati.

I wish I could share something that surprised me or that I found new and exciting about Makati, but to be completely honest, it’s quite similar to most financial centers around the world, what with its plethora of designer brands, wide variety of international cuisines, and looming office buildings. While the 100-degree heat and 90 percent humidity might feel unbearable, I have only had to bear it for a few minutes at a time, transitioning from the air-conditioned hotel to the air-conditioned office, both kept at a refreshing 20 degrees Celsius. In the “market” that I walk through each morning, I pass by Rolex on one side and Calvin Klein on the other. I can’t say I have been struggling without knowing the local language, because everyone I have interacted with so far speaks English. And I don’t even have to worry about getting accustomed to the local food; yesterday the Habitat staff took us out for Italian!

All in all, I feel like I’m living in luxury here, with similar access to what I could have in, say, Manhattan (though maybe the Italian food isn’t as great).

JUXTAPOSITION BEYOND MAKATAI

But while I relax in my air-conditioned skyscraper, about 350 miles away in Tacloban, Filipinos are still living without adequate housing after super-typhoon Haiyan destroyed their homes nearly five years ago.

And only about 20 miles from Makati, there are Filipinos living in abject poverty, residing in houses that would not withstand a major disaster.

Witnessing this disparity is flooring. Today, our Keough School advisor Tracy Kijewski-Correa (we were blessed to have her join us in the field for a few days) drove us out to Bulacan, a barangay (village) on the outskirts of Metro Manila, to study housing typologies typically built by and for people in the income level Habitat is targeting for its programs. We saw many examples of people clearly attempting to build structurally sound homes, but lacking the money, skills, or quality of materials to complete a shelter resilient to the types of disasters the country experiences regularly. In some cases we could actually see at what point the builder either ran out of money or simply stopped caring about structural durability: leftover and broken cinderblocks to fill gaps at the top of an otherwise well-laid wall, a high quality iron roof clumsily attached to the structure below.

When the funding runs out, builders have no choice but to take shortcuts. Unfortunately, the homeowners will pay dearly for those shortcuts, as these are the exact places where the structure will fail if a typhoon or earthquake strikes. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; a house is no different.

The disparity really shouldn’t shock me—back home in the states one similarly would not even have to leave Manhattan to find a sizeable population of (note: greatly stigmatized) people lacking adequate shelter—but it remains jarring nonetheless. I accept that no individual effort on my part can possibly narrow this enormous gap in the Philippines. But if Habitat’s work can improve access to safe and affordable housing, addressing people’s most basic needs? Well, that would be a good place to start.

Stories of learning, triumph, questioning, struggles

by: Tracy Kijewski-Correa and Steve Reifenberg

23 students. 13 countries. 12 months with 7 partner organizations. 2 months in the field.

As co-directors of the Keough School’s Integration Lab (i-Lab), we are thrilled to see the Master of Global Affairs students embark on their two-month field placements.

This is not study abroad. It is a truly professional experience that involves student teams working closely with an NGO, think tank, institute, or nonprofit dedicated to addressing complex, large-scale problems. We call it the Global Partner Experience.

They’ve been preparing for over nine months with their global partners. Now it’s time to put planning into practice.

Continue reading Stories of learning, triumph, questioning, struggles