Interview with Keith Drakeford

Keith Drakeford is a 4th year student in the International Relations specialist program. As part of Students for International Development, Keith has travelled to Peru where he has researched a variety of projects promoting sustainable, community-based development; for instance, educational workshops on proper sanitation and organization of a farmer's association. He continues to actively promote and mentor students who are interested in experiencing and learning first-hand about what sustainable international development truly entails.

In light of Peacework's upcoming trip to Calhuitz, Guatemala, Keith has taken the time to discuss and reflect upon his experiences in a student-based international development project, what he has learned, and how this has impacted both the communities he has worked in as well as his personal development.

PW: Can you tell us about the projects you participated in and their impact on the communities you worked in?

Keith: In the summer of 2013, I went to Peru for 6 weeks. Students for International Development (SID) had a couple of projects going on but they were finding it difficult to get in contact with the poorest people there. That was what my team was about, scouting and researching. We stayed at the main city of Baba Grande, and from there we visited the outlying districts and communities. We tried to partner with local community groups, NGOs, and the municipal government to gather data on the area and see where we could orient our resources. 

Prior to going overseas, we had training sessions in leadership and project management in order to be able to build and work on the variety of projects overseas. Projects focus on education, health, micro-finance, and agriculture.

The projects on which we ended up working were health and water sanitation projects focusing on educating a small community of subs farmers. There were high rates of water-borne illnesses – a relatively common phenomenon in some developing countries. Through conversations with local health officials it seemed that the best project we could undertake – instead of taking up an expensive water infrastructure project – would focus on education (e.g., on proper health practices like hand washing in the washroom). Spreading this kind of awareness into the culture would really influence the rates of water-borne diseases.

Also, there was a micro-finance project through which women paid into a "central pot", helping them establish a system of emergency savings and economic security. Previously, if they needed to borrow money, they would borrow from friends and family and thus incur a lot of financial strain on the community, and hinder their financial independence and security. In addition, the project also brought women together to discuss various needs in the community, such as gender equality.

The other project that I was working on involved a community that was rather isolated, and its people were leaving to seek jobs elsewhere. Interestingly, however, they had a great "educational system,” a great school teacher. She was the social hub of the community and put us in touch with everyone else. She was very proud of her students and how they took on government jobs, among others.

What we found while partaking in these projects is that these communities each have very different feels and vibes. Some of them seemed to have lots of social capital in that they were very excited to do things that would improve their community. Others seemed more disconnected from each other and more suspicious of outsiders. This is one of the major areas on which we decided to work. The community that we worked  with was bursting with ideas, as local groups identified what needed to be improved. Despite their isolation, they were very excited to work with us. 

We were also working with a farmers’ association to try and get pooled resources in order to manage the community’s water supply and obtain better farming equipment. We were going to hire someone from the municipality to look after the town’s water irrigation system. During a tour, however, our tour guide just sort of hopped into the water reservoir and started pulling out leaves and dirt; that was the town's water! He just unplugged the water supply for the whole city! People were really protective of how much water they got from this reservoir and there was disagreement on how to share the water. The first steps to tackle this issue was to help the farmers organize and develop a constitution to help them solve issues in their community.

PW: There are issues surrounding cultural differences and sensitivity that come with international development projects. Can you tell us about your experiences with that?

Keith: They eat guinea pigs there! You know, like the cute pets. So a team went to a community this summer where they started a women's association. They started guinea pig farming. This was a good option to raise income for the community. The women would rather have their own source of income – the guinea pig farming. This was a good decision because: a) guinea pigs are considered a delicacy in Peru and its business isn’t very common in the region b) they are fairly easy to manage and farm. So the women's group cleared land to set up the farms and enclosures for the guinea pigs. They hired an agricultural engineer to give workshops on raising the guinea pigs and educating the farmers. Coming back to the topic of cultural differences, here they are cute pets; there, they are food.

PW: So the projects involved going in and helping local establishments develop, as opposed to starting a completely brand new project?

Keith: Yes, trying to help the community organize in a more formal way. So for example, there are a number of opportunities for low income farmers to receive loans, but only if they apply as a group. Since these farmers don't have any property or capital to support their loans with, the banks don't have anything to seize if they default. If you apply as a community, and a member of that community defaulted, then the loan is withdrawn from the whole community. So what the scheme is relying on is social pressure not to withdraw from the loan; no one wants to be the one member who doesn't make the payment. So, if they are organized as a formal association, they can apply for some of these funds.

PW: I think that there are some people who, upon signing up for these trips, think "we are going to start big projects" and are drawn by the idea of a thrill-seeking opportunity. So what do you think about that and how that fits with the reality of social and international development as you have experienced it?

Keith: Sustainability comes from within the community. Our teams can go in and talk about their ideas of what the community needs. However, the community may have different ideas of what they need, and our role is to support them. The people working on the ground are members of the community. The resources involved are owned and managed by the community. Overseas, the role of our groups is to bring in a small amount of capital that these communities don't have access to (e.g., hiring agricultural engineers). But other than that, it is a matter of coordinating resources that are already there. Say you are a subsistence farmer, you aren't going to stand up one day and say I am going to talk to every single member in the community, and we are going to pool our resources and we are going to develop. There are clear needs in communities, and some communities have different ideas about these needs. 

In the past, there have been a lot of problems with big developmental initiatives. Our projects are designed to be as community-oriented as possible, helping communities organize and advocating for these communities by mediating a discussion between them and their governments.

There is a place for other sorts of volontourism as well, like if you go overseas and volunteer at an orphanage for 3 weeks. That is important as well, especially as it allows you to experience that and care a little bit more when you get back home. There are  plenty of other things Canadians should be doing, like pressuring our own government to allow for Canada to play a friendlier role in the international economy towards developing countries. We are a wealthy country, and we do buy imports from developing countries, and we are a member of the G8 and G20. Canada has a role to play in influencing international policy for the benefit of developing countries.

PW: How did these experiences help you develop as a person and what do you think of experiential learning? How about encouraging students here who might want to partake in these opportunities?

Keith: I would say that the one thing you learn is that you don't know what you are capable of until you try. If you are used to writing essays for school and used to doing the day-to-day university thing, no one has ever asked you to figure out how to put a farmers' association together. But when you are charged with doing a task, and you arrive at a conclusion of what you need to do for a community, and how to do it, then you realize you can actually do something cool like that. The main thing is that when you have these broader options and responsibilities to address such issues, by the end of it you are doing really cool things!

The one limitation was that my Spanish wasn't good enough for me to have a formal conversation with professionals. It was a barrier not to conduct interviews myself or communicate with people without a Spanish-speaking team member or translator.

PW: Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your experiences with us!

Keith: No problem! It was nice to sit down and think about and reflect on what did I did two summers ago.