Amazing, Inspiring, Challenging to Think About

I wonder how many of us have seen the YouTube video  The Rural Women Solar Engineers of Africa. I find it inspiring in all sorts of ways, as a demonstration of how ordinary people can make a huge difference in their local communities and of how smart thinking can explode conventional ideas about how to run projects aimed at alleviating poverty. As an anthropologist interested in theory and method and possible applications of ethnographic research, I also like the way it challenges a lot of conventional assumptions that we are likely to make.


Consider the following scenarios.


1. Engineers employed by a development agency arrive in a rural village and install a solar power system supplied by a donor country or NGO. Everyone is delighted, but then the engineers leave. Nobody in the village knows how to maintain the system or obtain the necessary parts or has the foresight to save enough to buy them if they knew. Predictable outcome: The system wears out, breaks down, and, unless the development agency has engineers and spare parts on permanent call to make repairs, the village is left in the dark again.


2. The development agency not only installs the system, it provides training for young villagers, turning them into certified solar power system maintenance engineers. Predictable outcome: The young engineers migrate to cities in search of jobs that offer a brighter future than staying in the village. The system wears out, breaks down, and, unless the development agency has engineers and spare parts on permanent call to make repairs, the village is left in the dark again.


3. Someone has a crazy idea: Train grandmothers to install and maintain the system and make the villagers pay for the system—not much, about what they would spend on kerosene or firewood if they didn't have the system.

  • Grandmothers?Yes, illiterate (sometimes  semiliterate) older women with children and grandchildren in the village. They won't be leaving for the city. 
  • Certificates? No.They won't need them to find a new job.
  • Ensure that people own the system? Yes. It's not a gift. It's something they pay for, in which they have a serious stake.
  • Formal education in electrical engineering? No. Design a totally non-verbal approach to learning system installation and maintenance that requires nothing more than learning what to do with color-coded parts. The training takes six months instead of the years required to achieve literacy and technical certification.

This last point is particularly challenging to me, an intellectual, who has invested a lot of his life in obtaining an advanced degree. This program demonstrates that people don't have to know a lot to do a lot of good. Having a stake in the doing and in the people you're helping and being there to keep things going, not disappearing to take on another project or find a new job, are much more important. 

And what about the technology? The grandmothers' could never invent or produce it. Now, however, their children or grandchildren might learn enough to invent something even better; I think, for example, of another amazing, inspiring story, the one about the Malawian teenager who transformed his village by building elect....  

For this project, however, it suffices that while Arthur C. Clarke was right, "Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic to those who don't understand it," the technology can work, as magic sometimes does, without people understanding why. 


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Comment by Huon Wardle on April 21, 2011 at 2:28pm
Looking at the students I am involved with - since part of what is being discussed here is their seeming inertia - they are extremely engaged with anthropology which they see as both a means to see things differently, critique what exists and to move forward. The other day one of our undergraduates gave a brief and electrifying talk to that effect at an event for students and staff. The fact that students don't necessarily want to follow our plan, which is anyway out of date, should hardly be surprising. A lot of what is taught under the name of anthropology has a fatalistic ring to it whether it is presented under the label of Foucault or Merleau Ponty or Viveiros de Castro or whatever; but that is not what these students are taking with them: they want to move forward and the theories are just an instrumental aspect of that even if it looks like that is all they are interested in.
Comment by John McCreery on April 21, 2011 at 1:40pm

Thanks again, Keith. And apologies to Huon. Still have a nasty, nasty cold, possibly flu, that has turned my world  grey for the last two days. No excuse for gross generational generalization. Mostly I rage against myself.

Bouncing back from disappointment, going with the flow, and seizing new opportunities has worked pretty well for me. In terms of food and drink, marriage and family, and having interesting things to do, I count myself a lucky man. But I still feel disappointed in myself that I've never had the blind courage to step outside my comfort zone and try to do something that would make a real difference to anyone but me and mine. 

It isn't just Roy who impresses me in this story. It's the African grandmothers,too. I don't expect either to be perfect people. Nor do I expect the program to work as smoothly as the film suggests. But I have to admire the sheer guts and perseverance it takes to break with established paradigms and do something about a problem, however imperfect that something is. 



Comment by Keith Hart on April 21, 2011 at 11:18am

Fair enough, Huon and apologies for missing you out from my previous classification of contributors to this thread. I just spent two weeks with the new postdoc fellows recruited for a research program on the human economy. I admire and respect them as individuals and as a group, but it felt like pushing a boulder up a hill getting them to commit to anything that might smack of a normative agenda for our collective efforts. My colleague said wearily, "Welcome to the pomo generation", but I rejected that label since I knew them personally and they were not just egocentric skeptics. I also recall that I wrote a very angry book around 1980 mainly accusing my generation (young people who became adults in the 60s) of buying into pie in the sky visions of world revolution.

But there is something impersonal and social about the current climate for anthropological engagement with the world and every individual struggles with it. This is a pervasive disenchantment with the politics of amelioration whether social democracy, development or another form. Above all, the dominant voices are anti-liberal with a strong representation of intellectuals from you-know-where. It is hard to be a progressive of any kind when governments and corporations loot the world in the name of enlightenment principles of liberal democracy. I have pursued a line that separates me from this tendency because I believe that world society has reverted to the principles of the Old Regime and that billions of people now seek emancipation of the sort that was on offer in the West during the 18th and 19th centuries. I think it is hard for anthropologists or westerners of any generation to muster enthusiasm for such a project since the game is up -- the world will no longer grant the West unearned income after half a millennium -- and we face inevitable decline.

I understand where John is coming from. It's hardly the first time, is it? And why you resist the caricature as a thoughtful and sensitive person. But I am trying to write a book about the potential for resurgence in Africa and it feels like hard work, going against the prevailing penchant for post-colonial critique of "neoliberalism".

Comment by Huon Wardle on April 21, 2011 at 10:54am
When I was in my field in November I met some well-scrubbed young men - members of the US Peace Corps who fulfill all your expectations about wanting to change the world, John. Good for them: they were very pleasant people: horses for courses, I would say. Just to go over the same ground - the project is imaginative and thoughtful (and obviously has money behind it), but the fact that it is presented as an advert not an argument is disturbing. I don't think that awareness of that has anything to do with 'belonging' to a 'generation'.
Comment by John McCreery on April 21, 2011 at 10:23am

Thanks, Keith.

At one level, it may simply be the case that we belong to a generation that still believed that changing the world is possible. My take on contemporary popular culture, in which our younger colleagues have been pickled since birth, is that it's most consistent message is that progress is impossible. Ditto for the humanist side of academia. No wonder that the public pays less and less attention and is less and less willing to pay for our hobbies. What remotely rational taxpayer wants to support an institution whose product is a world of young Werthers?


Comment by Keith Hart on April 21, 2011 at 9:40am

It seems that the prevailing attitude of younger (American?) anthropologists to episodes like this is mistrustful. I won't say cynical, but certainly not enthusiastic, a perspective shaped by post-colonial theory more than do-goodism of the barefoot or any other variety.

Read this excellent article by Kerim at Savage Minds, 3 cups of orientalism. It is hard to fault the subtlety of his analysis, but he does seem to have a prejudiced audience in mind. There are major differences between the two cases, but "changing the world" does seem to be rather suspect and it is notable that only two old white men have taken an active interest in discussing the rural women solar engineers here.

Comment by John McCreery on April 21, 2011 at 5:40am

I'd very much like to know how extensive and generalizable the problems that Stewart Allen has discovered are. It is hardly surprising news that things don't always work out as planned—as anyone who has had a real job knows, they hardly ever do. Finding  some cases in which things have not worked out as planned is not "the plot thickens." It is only the usual state of affairs. Evidence of systemic flaws is, of course, another issue.


Also, isn't anyone who worries about the lack of room for self-criticism in what is plainly a promotional video with, it appears, Indian Government backing, being more than a little naive? 

There may be problems with the scheme, predictable small ones that do nothing to discredit the scheme as a whole or large, systemic ones revealed as the scheme is implemented that require deeper reflection. On the other hand, self-criticism that leads to nothing but disappointment and paralysis—the usual sorts of academic idiocy—should probably be avoided.





Comment by Huon Wardle on April 20, 2011 at 2:13pm

He thinks that the project doesnt always get very good results despite the popularity of the founder. There are lots of problems ...when the women go back to their homes in Africa because they have to source all the materials from outside and because they haven't been trained in unexpected problems and when things go wrong, they are blamed.


The scheme looks great. However, the issue of sourcing the replacement components occurred to me too. It has become a bit of a stereotype in NGO work that men can't be trusted to do anything - which is often true but also has ramifications that seem to remain unexplored. Perhaps more generally what struck me was the lack of room for self-criticism in the presentation which is, a priori, a bit worrying.

Comment by Keith Hart on April 20, 2011 at 12:30pm

The plot thickens. Laura Mann tells me that her friend Stewart Allen is doing his phd on this ngo and particularly on learning/technology transfer. He thinks that the project doesnt always get very good results despite the popularity of the founder. There are lots of problems ...when the women go back to their homes in Africa because they have to source all the materials from outside and because they haven't been trained in unexpected problems and when things go wrong, they are blamed.

I also received from Myron Frankman a reference to a McGill PhD thesis, Catherine O’Brien (1997) Education for sustainable community development: Barefoot College, Tilonia, India.


The NYT produced an article on this college the other day. I think it is a rather wonderful example of the opportunities for networking knowledge, whatever the reality.

Comment by Keith Hart on April 18, 2011 at 12:44pm

Thanks, John. Three thoughts.

1. Language inhibits as much as it enables.

2. Grandmothers are the key to early human evolution, the stable core of foraging bands.

3. All of the stuff we use here is a bloody miracle to me or magic, if you prefer.


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