Earlier this summer, I went to Rwanda through the Center for Civic Leadership’s Loewenstern Fellowship. I was there for seven weeks, working with a non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Rwandese Endogenous Development Association (ARDE/KUBAHO), which works to empower Rwandans to gain clean water access, improve soil productivity, and promote healthy living environments.
A lot of the work they do is related to planning water access projects and helping transition the infrastructure from the contractors to the community members. They promote this transition by developing water management structures in the communities (for example, every water tap has a tap manager and every community has a water user committee) and training the community members in water system maintenance. They also act as liaisons between the contractors in charge of building the water system and community members. The community members provide labor for the projects, which reduces unemployment levels while the projects are being built.
As an intern, I participated in many site visits to evaluate the general progress of the water projects. I also attended community meetings, where my colleagues would often introduce a new phase of the project and communicate the importance of the water system training. All of these meetings and site visits were conducted in Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda, so it was sometimes difficult for me to orient myself, but it was a valuable learning experience all the same.
I also wrote reports on the organization’s general activities, stakeholder surveys, and governmental planning meetings that ARDE/KUBAHO (A/K) was invited to. In my final weeks, I did research about the core areas that A/K works in at the global, regional, and country levels. I also created a database of organizations that provide funding in those areas. The research and funding information will be used in their project proposal process and hopefully allow them to gain more grants for the work that they do. Throughout the process, I really admired A/K’s commitment to project sustainability and community behavior change, which drives a lot of the non-profit work in Rwanda.
During my time in Rwanda, I was exposed to the technical work that goes into building water systems. Specifically, I learned about the most crucial aspects of these development projects: training communities on how to use and maintain the water systems and creating structures within the communities to manage both the systems and their use. This process occurs from the time A/K initiates conversation with community leaders until 2 to 5 years after a project is completed. Not only does this method build capacity and technical skills within the community, but it also increases the level of investment from the community, which is one of the best ways to ensure that the implemented projects are long-lasting.
In the development sector, it’s easy to find organizations whose money harms the host community, drives out local solutions, or adds no value to the area, so it was nice to see so many local NGOs operating in the Environmental and Natural Resources sector. These NGOs seemed to truly understand the importance of education as a tool to increase the efficiency of environmental management and help the country meet its governmental goals related to natural resources and climate change.