Soluciones Comunitarias: Cambiando los obstaculos a oportunidades (changing obstacles into opportunities). This is one of our company slogans and really an important part of our model. Each of the products that we offer represent a “solution” to a key “problem” – reading glasses for those who are unable to read, weave, or work on detailed projects; protective eyewear to prevent “carnocidad,” a painful condition that occurs when the eye begins to grow a protective coating in light of increased exposure to dust, smoke, or UV rays; improved cookstoves as a more environmentally and financially sustainable solution to cooking (as compared to cooking over open fires on the floor), and water filters as a more economical and safe manner of obtaining clean water. Each of our product offerings were derived from the recognition of a specific problem, and the understanding that by increasing access to a specific, life-changing product, the initial investment (which, for many products, we subsidize as much as possible) will “pay it forward” far into the future, with increased work productivity, better health, or simply a way to save money on consistent costs such as firewood, electricity, and water.
But we face challenges on a more macro level too. For one, we’re operating in a landscape with distinct NGO overload. NGOs, non-profits, and social business abound in Guatemala, focusing on everything from microfinance to education to women’s empowerment to healthcare. The need for social work and development projects here is pronounced – you only need to walk down the street for a few minutes in any Guatemalan community to see the high levels of poverty and inequality for yourself – but what does it mean when a conglomeration of private organizations take on the social services that ordinarily should be taken care of the by the country’s own government? And what does it mean for so many organizations to be working side by side, many of whom share a similar mission or model and work in many of the same communities?
Of course, there is plenty of positive collaboration between NGOs in Guatemala. SolCom alone partners with a wide range of organizations, including Pencils of Promise, Habitat for Humanity, Friendship Bridge, and more, not to mention a whole host of weaving cooperatives and smaller grassroots organizations. But sometimes, our model runs directly at odds with something else happening on the ground, a challenge that can be difficult to overcome (and easy to ignore).
I’ve written about my concerns with water filter donations before (see my post, “The Good With the Bad“), but I think it merits further discussion. What’s frustrating to me is not really that water filters are being donated (while donations may not be our model, the need for clean water is very real and if a donation of a filter will ensure that family has convenient access, then that’s great). Rather, it’s frustrating that with water filters in particular, there’s a need for simultaneous knowledge-sharing and education, specifically an explanation of the fact that the “candle” (the central piece that does the actual filtration), must be changed on a yearly basis. Certainly this brings up other concerns as far as expertise and the expectation that individuals and families become their own “water experts” (which of course we are not expected to do in the United States, or elsewhere with clean, accessible tap water), but taking that aside, it means that without this education, and without a follow-up opportunity – from the original donating organization or someone else – to replace the candle – Guatemalan families believe they are drinking clean water, donated from a benevolent organization, when in reality, they are no better off than they would be if they were drinking contaminated water from the top.
So here’s my idea. If we could initiate some channels of communication between ourselves and other organizations out there that are providing water filters to rural Guatemalan communities – whether via donations or sales – couldn’t we work together to achieve our shared goal of providing access to clean and safe water? For example, if we could somehow get access to the names of communities, families, or individuals where filters are being donated, we could then return in a year, conduct a separate “candela campaign,” and make sure that as many filters as possible are clean and in working order. Then, not only would we be contributing to clean water access, but we’d actually be increasing our own sales and reach – a direct example of changing obstacles into opportunities, and doing what we can do to make our collective impact as long-lasting and sustainable as possible.