Before I left IRD Headquarters weeks ago for my journey to Indonesia, I was given the plans for latrines to be constructed through the IRD Watsan project in Yogyakarta. The project is part of a larger regional effort for which IRD is serving as a subcontractor responsible for several sub-villages south of Yogya. Each sub-village was to work with IRD to construct their four mandi (traditional Indonesian squat toilet) latrines and exterior water supply valves to serve the sub-village’s water needs.
Having already seen detailed designs, it was exciting to finally arrive in Yogya during my sixth week in Indonesia; however, when I arrived I learned that the design for the latrines had been altered due to several new issues. The first problem was the unexpectedly high cost of drilling wells for the water supply systems. Although it was known that the village’s existing wells needed to be replaced, no one expected that the new wells would need to be nearly four times as deep as the existing ones. This additional depth, in combination with the type of rock discovered, significantly increased the cost of the project. These water supply systems were given priority, so something else had to go.
That something else was the latrines. Some villages lost their latrines altogether and the rest were reduced to half of their original size. Now, if it would build a latrine at all, each village would only have two mandi. The reduction in number was a problem in itself, but the sponsor of this particular project made an additional change; it required that for every mandi installed there must also be a toilet installed for the disabled. On paper, this seems to be a perfectly reasonable requirement, and to a Western eye the sit-down toilet and shower look to be a marked improvement to a mandi; however, a visit to the village gives a different perception.
I was able to visit Jambon sub-village for a negotiation meeting over its water supply system. The drive to Jambon sub-village begins with a drive of about half an hour from Yogya on large well paved roads. At that point, a turn between two small buildings reveals a small and unmarked road. The single track dirt road winds through several sub-villages and uphill for a few kilometers or so. This road is littered with the remains of past development projects, which stand unused and in disrepair. Latrines with rotting wooden support and tattered blue tarp walls dominate the picture. Jambon sits above and behind these previous projects and displays a striking absence of development help. The negotiation meeting I attended with Jambon sub-village was required due to the extremely high cost of drilling new wells; the budget appointed for the project was no longer sufficient to supply water to the entire village, so IRD was asking the village to come up with money or in-kind contributions to make up the difference. Although village participation is a part of IRD projects, this isn’t the way it typically works.
The sub-villages chosen for this project are all similar to Jambon in that they were selected because they have not received previous help with their infrastructure from outside agencies. They have not received this help because they are some of the more difficult villages to reach and therefore in which to work. Jambon is located on the side of three different large hills, and once one leaves the main single track dirt road, the paths around the sub-village are wide enough only to accommodate motorcycles. Many of these small paths are built on a grade of no less than 20%. Although this doesn’t cause significant problems when driving a motorcycle or walking around the village, it would cause significant problems for anyone who is disabled; transportation around the village for them would be nearly impossible. Luckily, none of these sub-villages have individuals with physical disabilities that prevent them from getting around or from using a mandi. This means that these villages will be receiving a toilet intended for people who don’t currently exist in that setting, but of course it could help someone in the future. However, under the current conditions a toilet stall designed for a disabled individual may not have such positive benefits. The villagers are skeptical of the Western-style toilet in the disabled stall and voice significant opposition to the idea; therefore, this modern addition practically reduces the number of new latrines installed to one. However, although the villagers’ input was considered in many aspects of the project, the sponsor was unwilling to yield in this case. The stalls intended for the disabled were non-negotiable. Therefore, each village will only have one mandi and one toilet for the disabled.
As wonderful as the disabled toilet looked on paper, and as impractical as it initially looked on the ground, there are convincing arguments for both sides. At some point, someone introduced the mandi to Indonesia, replacing muddy holes and city sewers as the bathrooms of choice. Introducing new hygienic ideas to traditional cultures can be a wonderful idea. But at some point, I wonder if new introductions stop helping to improve hygiene, or quality of life, and simply begin to try to impose a Western way of life. Is this one of those examples? I don’t know. If some members of these communities begin to use the disabled toilet, it could significantly improve the quality of life for those with disabilities or those infirmed by old age; however, if the communities maintain their current skepticism and disapproval, they are instead left with a single latrine for the entire sub-village.
The IRD team actively worked to make the best of the situation, but budget constraints and imposed restrictions tied their hands in many ways. They could decrease the quality of the latrines to more reflect those falling apart in the sub-villages neighboring Jambon, they could shorten the water supply lines and leave some houses out of the project, or they could look for other options that save money but sacrifice quality or quantity. Is quantity the only measure of success? Is one latrine better than none? Is one usable latrine that lasts better than four that fall apart? Does using Western ideas and building codes make sense in a non-Western society? I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but over the last few weeks I’ve become more aware of how important they are to the development world and how the answers to these questions are one of the key differences in the way that different NGOs conduct business.
In studying theology, students gain a rapidly increasing ability to quote our favorite scholars or verses from the Bible, but it is possible to overlook how those words and opinions work on the ground. It’s easy to make decisions from our classrooms and offices and think we know how it will work. It’s easy to think that a western toilet intended for increasing accessibility to latrine facilities for the disabled is doing a real service for the community, especially when one has never visited the site. It’s easy to think that we know how to work between religious groups when we have never actually sat at a table with those of different religions. It’s easy to preach our favorite parable when the majority of our experience is in an air-conditioned classroom in a new multi-million dollar building.
Luckily, Candler works hard to make these decisions harder for its students by sending us into the world. Through experiences like this internship with IRD and certainly through the Contextual Education program, Candler is actively engaging its students with the world. It will also be important to create an attitude of continued worldly involvement for its students as we leave the CST building and for faculty as they continue to teach in it. The easy decision is not always the best one; well-informed decisions that take into account many opinions and views may take more time and energy, but it seems likely that they have a better chance for making lasting posit