Collecting Data for Soild Waste Systems: Aquiring Life Skills in Haiti

From July to November 2011, I embarked on my first career building experience. Well when written like that, it sounds so serious. It was serious to some extent. The experience changed me: my world-view, my abilities, and my character. In the next paragraphs, I will explain the nature of my work with a focus on the skills that I acquired during this adventure.

You must be wondering. What did she do for those six months to feel like that?

In short, I interned for a solid waste management and urban development consulting NGO within a Municipal Reconstruction project in Haiti.WASTE is a small Dutch NGO that consults local governments, other NGOs, and organizations based where they work. Their consultancies focus on transforming the issue of waste into opportunity in urban marginalized areas of the Global South. By opportunity, I mean (in collaboration with the organization on the ground) WASTE advises how to set up an integrated waste management system. The people who pick up waste in the streets and re-sell it for profit to the voluntary neighborhood- cleaning comities are included in the conversation with official local, national and international actors. The quality I love most about WASTE is that they thoroughly study the landscape before acting. Their baseline analyses consider everyone involved: their objectives, their capabilities, and their power within the existing system.

My official title at WASTE was a “project assistant” in the The Palms Region Municipal Reconstruction project. After the devistating 2010 Earthquake, four municipalities (Gressiers, Leogane, Grand Goave, and Petit Goave) formed an association to seek donor support to improve their urban environmental services. Municipal associations from Canada, the Netherlands and France responded to the mayors’ call for aid. The partnership between the municipalities in Haiti and the municipal associations is contracted until 2014. To ensure institutional memory, the project created ATIP (Intermunicipal Technical Asociation of Palms). The technical agency will advise the muncipalities on environmental service planning and execution during and after the project. In essence, the project is creating in-house consultants for the municipalities.

As you may guess, WASTE is focusing on the solid waste management aspect of the project. My job was to collect the data for the baseline, or that study of the landscape that I mentioned before. As you can imagine, I gained an enormous amount of skills running around Haiti collecting this data. Data collection, data analysis, communication, writing, presenting, researching, negotiation, and cultural manovering skills. I will give you an example of one of the many assignements that force me to strut my skills. Although, often I made many mistakes. Therefore, strutting my talents was not a pretty site sometimes.

The assignment was to simply: figure out on average how much waste do the residents of each muncipality generate. The task was significant for many reasons. After shadowing my colleagues for a couple weeks, I got to put theory and observation into practice. It was the first time that I facilitated a training workshop on the job, and it was my first data processing assignment with WASTE.

Anyways back to our quest to figure out how much waste is in the communes. Since this information did not exist already, we had to start from scratch. My direct supervisor and I, had the task at hand. For some of this she was based in the Netherlands and I in Haiti. Then she joined me for the execution of our master plan.

First, we had to establish a point of reference to check our calculations against. We research published reports on waste management in Haiti. This task was not hard, since there are few reports on this topic for Haiti. While that was easy, that met that everything else we had to do would be that much more difficult. Finally, we found one report, which calculated that on average 0.6kg/person/day of waste is generated in the households of the capital. The figure was a good reference, but not ideal because it was not from our region.

Second, we had to get data in our region, simple enough, right? My supervisor was the brains of our plan, so I closely watched and learned. Her strategy was to hold community training workshops in each commune. We would teach each participant how to conduct a waste audit and how to report their findings. Each participant had the responbility of surveying 3 homes, their own and 2 others in their area. My next words can only be details, details, details. They were absolutely instruemental in this case. From choosing the workshop venue, comunicating details with the mayors, to preparing workshop documents. Not to mention figuring out what I am going to say in front of community members seeking opportunities from waste. When you only have a few days to pull all of this off, things get crazy.

Third, we held the workshops and collected the data. This was not so bad. My job here was to present the source separation of waste theory. In Haitian Creole, I presented that waste can be classified into two categories: by where it was produced and by what material it is. Then we described how to conduct a waste audit, and administer the surveys for a week. To do this, we had the participants classify the waste by material, weigh them, and fully describe the households at the time of the survey (size, location, time of day, etc). Looking back, we had a blast! It was great to see the participants eyes light up when they made connections. A common example was when they figured out where to classify the toothpaste tube. Often they would mention how it was mixture of materials (metals and plastics) so how do we deal? This kind of brainstorming unified the energy in the rooms. In the end, we reassured the participants that we were only a phone call away if they needed help.

Fourth, we had to collect the surveys, the waste, or both? A week later, the participants returned the surveyes as instructed, but some of them also brought back the waste from the survey households. Yes, the waste! This startled and embrassed me to some exent. While this may seem harmless, it really means that communication broke down at some point when I was giving instructions. I thought to myself, maybe my Creole was not clear enough, maybe they were not listening to me, or maybe I was just a boring and unengaging facilitator? The list could go on here, but I rather stop. Well, after talking to some of the participants for feedback, I found out there were more points of mis-communications. No, more bad news! Ok it seemed dramatic at the time, but I learned a lot about what I need to do differently in the future. Luckily some good came from the experience. With participant feedback, we brainstormed on how to tailor workshops to the local context in the furture.

Fifth, after the workshops, I had to process the data. This was a nightmare that lasted about 1 month and a half. The orignal data consisted of 120 hand-written surveys with information from the number of people in the house to the number of cokes consumed in a week. I had to swive through these, make sense of the data, and present my findings to my superiors. Here, MS Excel became my best friend. I seperated the data by municipalitiy, then by household, and finally by day. I crossed the separation points with weight of each material generated. In the end, I had the amount of kg/person/day generated for each household. Now for the extrapolation. I created a summary sheet for my collegauges with the findings seperated their location: city center, suburbs, or rural. I also tallied up the totals per commune. After all of that, I processed the data on what people did with their waste. Of course, the data had to be presented to my collegues in a brief manner. So I wrote a brief of what I learned about residential SWM in the communes and the main calculation results. From reading surveys to spending nights with excel the task was engaging in the least.

Through that process, I acquired and enhanced some solid skills. (1) Research skills to situate myself in the local context. (2) Planning the workshop with relevant actors. (3) Workshop facilitating and community training on solid waste management skills. (4) Presentation skills. (5) Data collecting, processing, and analyzing with excel. (6) Writing skills for reports, briefs, etc.

Lessons learnt are fairly straightforward here: communication, information sharing, and details are CRUCIAL at all times. Communicating details is probably more accurate in the case of example. A great tip my colleague told me after my communication fiasco is when communicating something to anyone for any reason “think about your audience”, she said: who are they, how do they spend their days, what do they like, how much information can they retain at once, what do they know already about the topic, etc. Since she has done a million of these workshops around the world, I intently listened and scribbled the golden words on my notepad. In the end, you won’t be right all the time, but your thoughts can improve your communication outcomes.

By the way, if you were wondering, our calculations reported…. drum roll please…. an average of 0.5kg/person/day produced in the region. Not, bad; not bad at all.

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