Discussion of "colonial language" in the WASH sector?

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  • reidharvey7734
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  • I am a ceramic industrial designer focused on environmental health and development. A premise of my interventions is that ceramics is ideally suited to addressing the urgent needs of low-income communities and nations. Those embracing ceramic interventions will gain resilience and self-sufficiency.
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Discussion of "colonial language" in the WASH sector?

Note by moderator (EvM): this thread is a spin off from the thread " Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions? ". 

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Hi Froggi VanRiper, 

When using the word, WE in eliciting an interest in solving the dire environmental health problems of the poor, I
want to believe that all here have this as a goal.  I am hesitant to use the word 'colonize' because there appear to be profiteers who will feel threatened and fight back.  They sell expensive interventions to donors, when the poor are capable of their own production and
implementation, primarily needing capacity building.  I am tip toing around the profiteers because they seem to be using their influence with policy makers, in such a way as to continue a status quo of ‘colonizing’ the poor, to use your term.
 
It sounds as if you are talking about reparations when you suggest that those in the prosperous north, should continuously provide for
those in the impoverished south.  I  would agree that the prosperous donors need to provide for the kinds of capacity building that will make the poor independent of them.  This would cost them by far less than current practices do.  Then far greater numbers of those vulnerable would be reached. 
 
‘We’ seem to be in a situation where there was some sort of a loose deadline between 2009 and 2015 or so, that if sustainable technologies could not be identified, the flood gates would be opened to those out for a lot of profit.  Now that this has happened it appears to be very difficult to return to revisiting sustainable interventions.  The means of meeting the SDGs are present but unfortunately there are those who seem to be preventing others seeing these. 
 
Now I have said more than I wanted to.  These seem to be awful truths that might best be overlooked while we focus on solving the problems.  Can someone please tell me, WHERE CAN WE FIND HONEST DISCUSSIONS ON SUSTAINABLE INTERVENTIONS?  There seem to be those who really don’t want such conversation, deluding themselves with their own poor ones.  Let us hope and pray that good sense prevails.  The stakes are incredibly high.
All the best,
Reid
Anthony Reid Harvey, ceramic industrial designer
Niagara Falls, NY USA
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  • FroggiVR
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Re: Discussion of "colonial language" in the WASH sector?

Reid, nowhere in the above message did I "suggest that "those in the prosperous north, should continuously provide for those in the impoverished south".  I was referencing the content of your linked newsletter, which states "...they [ "the poor" ] will continue to be dependent on outside resources...".  My statement was descriptive.  "Should" is prescriptive.

The newsletter is profoundly illustrative of the need for decolonization in our sector.  It contains multiple examples of the "benevolent colonialism" mindset:
  • It speaks about people and communities in poverty from an outside perspective rather than with or to them.  It employs us/them language, assuming the audience to be scholars, industrialists, or those with wealth, and the objects of the text to be uninvolved in the conversation: "We need to help the poor..."; "...the resources necessary to remediation tend to be all around them."; "Training the poor to create their own stoves..."  
  • This lens descends into condescension even when purporting to extend recognition to the communities in question: "Fortuitously, many impoverished potters are highly skilled."; "They tend to be entirely capable of production...".  
  • Finally, it purports to have a solution these communities and people need, neglecting the likelihood that they already have solutions and knowledge, but simply lack the financial or physical resources to realize these solutions (As mentioned before, this lack of wealth is a result of colonialism.  Yes, I do believe reparations are an appropriate step in rectifying such theft.)
Benevolent colonialism tends to be unconscious on the part of the author.  Those raised in colonial environments and with colonial educations (including myself) are taught assumptions, biases, and stereotypes that we often do not examine until we are confronted with "wake-up calls". 
Failing to address these biases will only perpetuate inequities and contextually uninformed interventions.  Evidence-based research suggests that humanitarian efforts, including "capacity building" programs imposed from without are prone to high failure rates, whereas solutions that arise from collaborative decisionmaking among local stakeholders yield lasting and contextually informed outcomes.  

Here are a few resources off the top of my collection.  These lean toward the methodological and philosophical, but a simple search on Google Scholar will reveal many manuscripts documenting the concrete link between outcomes and stakeholder engagement in humanitarian projects.   
Chambers, Robert.  1995.  “Poverty and Livelihoods: Whose RealityCounts?” Environment and Urbanization 7 (1): 173–204.  doi.org/10.1177/095624789500700106 .
Jasanoff, Sheila.  2004.  States of Knowledge: The Co-Production ofScience and the Social Order.  Routledge.
St Clair, Asunción Lera. 2006.  “Global Poverty: TheCo-Production of Knowledge and Politics.” Global Social Policy 6 (1): 57–77.  doi.org/10.1177/1468018106061392 .
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  • reidharvey7734
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Re: Discussion of "colonial language" in the WASH sector?

Froggi, With respect to your intellect and understanding, did you read the newsletter and the information at the link of the bottom of that page?  From what you say I seriously doubt it.  You seem to be filled with pre-conceived notions just as so many are, about some incapacity of the vulnerable poor.  You and others do talk about their talents but don't explain how that could be put to use in solving the problems.

You seem to assume that I have no real understanding of their plight, so I will tell you a bit about how I do.  Around my twenties, I spent eleven years in Liberia working for the churches.  The longer I stayed the more aware I became of, for example, the constant coughing of many and learned that it was from cooking fires.  I was present when small children died, the locals telling me that it was due to the water.  The two radio stations advertised powdered milk, telling moms that they didn't need to breast feed, then the moms mixed this with contaminated water.  From Liberia I went on to spend a total of 24 years in various parts of Africa and Southern Asia, working on soultions whenever I could.

While still in Liberia I decided to continue my education in ceramics, convinced that this would bring about development.  I was aware that the same 'mud' with which people so skillfully built their houses of sticks and mud, could probably be used to put together an energy efficient stove.  But as yet I had little idea about the candle water filters that I would later develop, that these could be treated with silver, to basically destroy waterborne pathogens.  Clean cookstoves and ceramic water filters are incredibly simple technologies.

Can you please, for the sake of discussion, read the newsletter and the information of the link.  It seems that you as so many others can only talk about the problems without talking about the solutions.  With all due respects, please set aside your assumptions about how it is that outsiders impose their solutions.  If you know of local technologies of local people that will solve the problems of environmental health, please tell us.  I have no doubt that you are well intentioned and for that I thank you.
All the best,
Reid
Anthony Reid Harvey, ceramic industrial designer
Niagara Falls, NY USA
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  • FroggiVR
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Re: Discussion of "colonial language" in the WASH sector?

Reid, 
Ask and ye shall receive:
Here are examples of effective co-development that situates the expertise of the "beneficiary" community at the heart of innovation, production, and ongoing management:
  • SOIL's EkoLakay CBS toilet system was developed as a collaboration between Haitian community members and a small team of Northern scholars.  With ongoing product and service model iterative development by the locally-run operational team, It remains one of the longest-lasting and highly successful CBS models in the world. (oursoil.org)
  • Bantu et al., (Ugandan scholars) have developed a highly efficient cookstove model using local expertise.  They don't need training and knowledge from the north; they need only capital investment for production, in order for their innovation to effect positive change at scale.  www.hindawi.com/journals/jre/2018/9620103/ )
  • This publication documents an attempt to document and resurrect indigenous water harvesting and preservation techniques in arid South Africa.  These techniques and infrastructural solutions predate colonialism, and in many cases are superior to modern technologies, as they were developed on the basis of centuries of understanding local hydrology and natural resources.  www.wrc.org.za/wp-content/uploads/mdocs/...ter%20management.pdf   (Similar re-discoveries have been made in Egypt).
The keyword "co-development", typed into Google Scholar will yield further examples of genuinely collaborative, non-colonial approaches to sustainability challenges in the global South. 
I avoid the words "developing countries" and "developed countries", as these terms are laden with assumptions about the desirable state, and/or the capacity of communities on both sides of the resource divide.  The global South is not slow in "developing"; it is economically depressed by resource exploitation benefitting the global North.  Fortunately ingenuity, knowledge, and innovation are not resources the North can extract and deplete.  The many North/South sustainability-oriented collaborations that have succeeded, have done so by leveraging the financial resources of the North to fund solutions generated by the ingenuity and innovation of Southern collaborators.  
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  • reidharvey7734
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Re: Discussion of "colonial language" in the WASH sector?

Thanks FroggiVR,  suppose you and I pursue SDG 17, partnering for the goals?  We are alike in that we pursue interventions of water treatment and cookstoves together, a course that few people follow.  There are innumerable synergies in producing and implementing these interventions together, as you seem to be well aware.  As with so much of development, pursuit of these has come to be siloed, especially the case with stoves.
 
Indigenous knowledge and practices are vital, but this cannot substitute for formal training and education.  You may notice that in my various presentations I stress the importance of capacity building for low-income potters who hand form water containers and cook pots.  Their training in model and mold making aswell as improved refractories and kilns should be viewed as formal training in
support of their indigenous knowledge that should give them capacity in a diverse product line.  Their indigenous knowledge base is fortuitous.  That theyhave never been trained in model and mold making could be viewed as a way that the poor have been colonized, denied essential knowledge.  Apologies, however, to those who could have assisted towards such training, but had no idea about the developments made possible through ceramic knowledge.
 
The thematic subject, ‘De-colonizing WASH’ might be viewed as an appropriate forum in which to revisit best practices.  No such discussions are apparent.  Indoor air quality figures into this because of the numerous synergies between these two environmental
health crises.  Here are some observations about technologies of water treatment and cookstoves that are well intentioned but are likely to be considered threatening by some, as criticism of their work.  They are free to pursuethe improvements that I suggest, however, and these come from my formal education in ceramics.  I.e., there is no substitute for formal training and education.
 
1)  Among the prominent clean cookstoves that are viewed as good practice are ones with a refractory liner that is said to come
from ‘a rare light weight clay.’ This assertion could well appear to the formally educated ceramist as absurd, because of what we universally describe as ‘a clay composition.’  I.e., it is silly to assume that a refractory liner should be composed of a single material.  There is a wonderfully simple refractory liner that is composed of 50/ 50 powders of clay and charcoal, so appropriate that an insulating rocket stove made from this clay composition is possible with no metal components.  I.e., it’saffordable to the poor within their economy since they can easily produce it, costing what would amount to US$3 or $4; paid for quickly in the savings on fuel.  Rocket stoves that are nowhere near as energy efficient that cost the donors around $100 and are sold to the poor for around $10.
 
2)  Ceramic water filters can be easily made that will reduce pathogens to the highest standard, e.g., log 6 or log 7 reduction
(99.9999% to 99.99999% effectiveness).  By contrast there are water filters that are considered as an acceptable alternative,
that achieve log 4 reduction at best, to which silver is added simply to prevent the regrowth of bacteria.
 
3)  Large-scale drinking water projects are being implemented using municipal-style water treatment, replete with chemicals,
electricity and a lot of gadgetry.  By contrast, large-scale water filters of granulated ceramics will be nature-based and easily maintained by the poor.  Their new understanding that they are capable of these interventions could be presumed to motivate them in community engagement and behavior change, with the prospects of the resilience of their communities.
 
4)  Chlorine is widely used to treat drinking water, though implementers tend to hate this. Too little chlorine and it’s not effective.  Too much and it’s a poison.
 
If there is anyone who can refute these assertions, I would love to hear about it.  When I go to the websites of organizations that do the good work of getting water to those vulnerable, there tends to be no information at all about making the water safe to drink.  Please, please, the vulnerable poor are getting sick and dying while they could do the production and implementation, getting their communities good health and resilience.  The interventions need to be for the poor, by the poor.  Can someone explain why it is that these interventions are only considered viable if they are introduced from external sources? 

I do not wish to be cynical but I doubt that there will be an explanation.  The point is that the evidence-base of the technologies should include affordability to the poor.  The evidence-base should be determined on a project to project basis, based on sound prototypes.  Thanks for reading.
All the best,
Reid
Anthony Reid Harvey, ceramic industrial designer
Niagara Falls, NY USA
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  • Elisabeth
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Re: Discussion of "colonial language" in the WASH sector?

I just wanted to point out that we have another forum thread about the topic of "decolonisation of WASH sector knowledge" here:
forum.susana.org/196-capacity-developmen...ash-sector-knowledge

That thread has 40 replies and 11,000 views so far which is quite a lot. I recommend for people who want to learn more about usage of the term "decolonisation" and what it all means to also read there.

The exchange between Froggi and Reid has been interesting and I thank you both for tackling this head on, despite the fact that it can lead to uncomfortable feelings. 

I must admit that in the past, certain statements of Reid have also made me cringe when I read them. I didn't say anything at the time because I felt you mean well, Reid, but some of the language comes across as not quite right. I am glad that Froggi has chosen to say something about this and agree with her statement of:

This lens descends into condescension even when purporting to extend recognition to the communities in question: "Fortuitouslymany impoverished potters are highly skilled."; "They tend to be entirely capable of production...".  

You've made the same statement in several of your posts, e.g. here :
"Importantly, it needs to be understood that the poor tend to be entirely capable of their own interventions of environmental health and development."

It's a bit like saying "Black people in the US are entire capable of achieving university degrees." or "girls are entirely capable of studying maths and physics at university". Even though on face value these kinds of statements are correct, they sound like someone is questioning this (given the history of everything). 

I know that you absolutely mean well. What you said about your CV is very impressive and shows that you know the situation from the grassroots level in several countries. Also, it's not a question (in this thread) about which technology for water treatment or clean cook stoves is best. We are not debating here whether technologies that you'd like to see used more have more merits than others or not (they very well might do). We are debating the wording that is used and whether this - unintentionally - reinforces certain stereotypes.

Perhaps Froggi and others could help in proposing other wording. I am wondering if this kind of wording would be better: "when looking for suitable technologies for water treatment and clean cook stoves, we should support those approaches that work with local knowledge and that are sustainable on all levels, ideally with the minimum of external funding or support required." Or something like that?

Maybe we also need to avoid using the term "the poor" altogether, as it is ill-defined. Replace with "people living in rural areas with low levels of household income"? Or something like that?
Note that I am no expert on this either. Just trying to help.

And the whole "decolonise WASH" discussion is painful for all of us who are in the privileged white grouping (and probably more painful for white men than white women). It might even be one aspect that would want me to quit working in the development cooperation sector, as there is just no easy solution for it. We want to help others but by doing so, we run the risk of having "white saviour" syndrome. It's not easy to reconcile this. Step 1 is to become aware of the contradictions and to reflect on them - which is what we are doing in this thread. Thanks for keeping an open mind.

Regards,
Elisabeth
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  • FroggiVR
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Re: Discussion of "colonial language" in the WASH sector?

Thank you, Elisabeth for keeping us on track, and for illustrating solutions for improved wording that mitigate unconscious bias.  

The following text is a useful tool, and speaks directly to your observation about terms like "the poor".   educ.queensu.ca/sites/webpublish.queensu...Guide%20-%202020.pdf

Inclusive and anti-colonial verbiage has powerful overlap with "people-first" language .  I was actually surprised to see that the Wikipedia article did not describe the application of people-first language to poverty-related topics, as I have found PFL to be a valuable guide for discussions in the "development" and humanitarian aid sectors.

Among other advantages, practicing people-first language is a useful thought-exercise; paying attention to where we put the person, in reference to their descriptors, reveals whether we are thinking of them primarily as a human, or defining them by their conditions and inadvertently dehumanizing the person or people in question.

I realize this conversation logically belongs in the Decolonization thread you linked above.  I do not want to derail this thread, but also don't know how to move a conversation elsewhere and keep it connected to its precedents; Elizabeth, can you please advise on message-board best-practices?  
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  • reidharvey7734
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Re: Discussion of "colonial language" in the WASH sector?

Please checkout this video, in support of my assertion that impoverished potters are capable of fabricating insulating ceramic rocket stoves.  I have little doubt that the woman potter shown could make the insulating rocket stoves of my postings, with a training
of 3 to 5 days only, allowing for the further drying time of molds and bricks.  https://youtu.be/u8qXo8X48DI  The stove she could produce would arguably be best practice and would be affordable in their economy.  There is an urgent need for the policy makers of clean cookstoves to allow for verification of the evidence-base, on a per project basis, based on sound prototypes.  A part of the evidence base must be affordability to the poor!
 
I stand by my assertion, suggested by the criticism of the first sentence following, my point in the last sentence of this. “This lens descends into condescension even when purporting to extend recognition to the communities in question: "Fortuitouslymany impoverished potters are highly skilled."; "They tend to be entirely capable of production...".
 
I am incredulous of criticism.  The criticism is more apt to be what is condescending.  The potters’ skills is fortuitous because ceramics and the high temperature processes are at the starting point of industry and prosperity that could industrialize their
countries.  Is this not fortuity??  Perhaps I should have re-iterated the point about industrialization as well.  Since I have no doubt that the critics are well intentioned, I can only imagine that I have not properly articulated my points.
 
As my expertise that I cite, please note that in 2011, USAID paid most of my way to the Conference of the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air, in Lima, Peru.  There I was told by the FHI360 facilitator that the insulating ceramic rocket stove of my poster presentation (and postings
here) was the stove they wanted.  Up to the time that we built the first of these stoves, in Nairobi in 2007, I had done energy efficient stove workshops and consultancies in Guinea, Senegal, Ghana, Chad, Cameroon and Indonesia.  The current small project with the insulating rocket stoves in Tanzania is one that I helped start in 2016.  My work was along with GTZ in Guinea with others mentioned in consulting with Winrock International and EnterpriseWorks.
 
Please take these insulating rocket stoves seriously.  When I refer to the capacity of the poor I should perhaps say, ‘the extreme poor.’  The livelihoods implicit to these ceramic interventions, and the many new and diverse products made possible, could be
their best guarantee of surviving the effects of the pandemic.  The stoves and the water filters of their work could prevent the children of their communities getting sick and dying.  I apologize if my choice of words is preventing people seeing this!  Please, please, this is urgent!  Please inquire with any questions.
All the best,
Reid
Anthony Reid Harvey, ceramic industrial designer
Niagara Falls, NY USA
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