Meet Aneta Piatek. She’s been working in the remote area of Paoua in the Central African Republic since 2010. In her official role, she’s a UN Volunteer with UNHCR as a Field Protection Officer – working with displaced persons and returning refugees. Due to limited operating resources, Aneta felt that not enough was being done to help the community. Like most volunteers, she wanted to do more so she started looking for other channels to work with the local community in a sustainable manner.
The area where Aneta works has the largest population in the area with former refugees and displaced people returning home every day as the conflict in northwestern CAR has mostly ended. The region surrounding Paoua has been facing the challenge of gradual deforestation over the last 10 years largely due to war, bush fires, and the population influx demanding wood for domestic functions. Then there is the matter of the protection of women and girls. They used to have to go into the forest to collect wood to use to light the cooking fire. It was tedious work that lasted hours. But also, it was extremely dangerous. Aneta felt personally challenged to do something, “It was in my personal interest to help. This is how the clay stove initiative was born.”
We caught up with Aneta to ask her a few questions on the initiative and how it has helped the local community develop sustainably.
I’ve been working in the development field for the past 5 years, going between well-paid jobs and volunteering. I have found that volunteering has been more rewarding. In general, it is not always easy to find a job that allows you to do what you’re passionate about. Volunteering gives you a chance to do something meaningful; to help communities. Volunteering has also helped me build my personal and professional skills and helped me grow.
They bring a lot to the table. Whether the volunteer is a community member or an outsider, they work not because they’re paid but because they want to see a difference in the communities. Sometimes United Nations Volunteers are stationed in remote locations where they are completely isolated. Volunteers should appreciate their own capacities. Coming from a more developed country, I have had access to education and experiences that have given me a wealth of information that I can share with the community here. The little I know has so much value. However, it is also important to appreciate the culture and capacity in the community where you work. You can’t bring an electric stove where there is no electricity or train village chiefs on national law if they don’t know how to read. There is one simple sustainable approach and that is to build on the already existing capacity of the community. You empower them and reinforce their existing skills. This is development.
I wanted to do something to help the community. Something that would benefit local women and help in terms of poverty and the environment. I had no previous experience with ceramics or clay stoves. My academic background is in international relations and conflict resolution. I had heard of an international NGO called Lifeline Fund that had introduced clay stoves in the Sudan and Uganda, regions already suffering from severe deforestation. I did some research on the internet and found some clay stove models. I presented these models to the women in the community and together we created the first clay stove in Paoua. The community had suggestions on how to improve the first stove model to better fit their specific cooking needs. We adapted the second model and started mass production, the pottery maker also began training select women's collective members in ceramics to assist in clay stove production.
Before the clay stoves, people were cooking in their huts with on an open fire. It was bad for the health of the adults but more so for the children. Having the stove means that children are less likely to be exposed to smoke harmful to their health. Also wood collection is a long and tedious process, sometimes taking hours and posing a danger to women who are alone and vulnerable in the bush. There have been several cases of rape and assault in these sitatuations. Clay stoves reduce the amount of wood needed for cooking meaning the reduction of time spent in the bush, contributing to their safety. Having the stove is also more economical. Finally, clay stoves reduce the demand for wood, directly reducing deforestation. Another very important factor is that clay stoves are an important income generating activity for the women that are traditional ceramics makers.
Initially, it was a lack of marketing experience. I had the model but didn’t know how to get word around. There are no local radio, newspapers, or other marketing mechanisms here, the only existing tactic is word of mouth. For a new idea to be effective, the population first needs to see and understand it. I also work full time out here and can’t devote enough time to the initiative. There is also the challenge of limited resources and isolation. An isolated field office with very few resources means limited opportunity to network with external potential funders to advocate community-based projects. I think for an initiative like this to be more effective, it requires start-up resources. For example, the purchase of the initial clay stoves and their distribution to vulnerable persons. This would give more exposure to the ‘product’ while benefiting those who would not have the means to buy the clay stoves themselves. This initiative has been so far based in the town of Paoua, since security restrictions limit mobility, preventing the immediate expansion of the project into rural areas.
Volunteers have firsthand experience in the community. I’d like to think that they go a little bit further than required to find out what works and what doesn’t by working more closely with the community. They also see firsthand the damage of poverty and environmental degradation and projects that don’t work so leaders should listen to volunteers. Too many projects are imposed by external agents, with large sums of money invested without including the community in project development. No one seems to realize that communities must be convinced and implicated for any development intervention to be truly sustainable. For that you need first hand encounters. You can’t tell people to preserve the environment without educating them on the long-term benefits of environmental protection, and giving them alternate income-generating options to activities that may result in environmental exploitation. International volunteers who are willing and enthusiastic to work directly with local communities are a direct link between poverty-stricken ‘target’ populations and the industrialized world. Our voices matter in the community and they should matter at Rio.
Ideally, I would like to see the creation of an online network of successful community-based sustainable and environmentally-friendly volunteer-initiatives. Volunteers around the world could go there to look for ways that could help the communities they work in. For example, the clay stoves idea might work in some other remote location in Africa or elsewhere and someone else’s idea might help here in Paoua. We need help with spreading ideas that work. Not only should this serve as a forum for volunteers but also for experts who could advise volunteers in the field on sustainable interventions and approaches.
The second element of this network would be a fund for small scale projects, especially for isolated places, that donors and citizens can choose to support. The creation of a United Nations Volunteer project fund would allow volunteers to have a greater impact in the communities they work in while decreasing the costs of complex administrative indirect interventions. Volunteers are in the field and can regularly monitor project advances.
Yes, for United Nations Volunteers: it can be difficult sometimes, especially in isolated posts so don’t be discouraged. You have so much knowledge, so much opportunity, so much you can give to the community. You need to believe this and use the knowledge you have acquired through past experiences and education to serve as that link between poverty and development. What you know really inspires.
And for local community volunteers: you are the hope and the future of the community. Although it may be frustrating not to receive income for community work, consider the skills and experience that you are gaining in mobilizing and leading the community towards a positive change. Profit on the networks you develop and in the long run, once others begin to appreciate all of the good work you have done, you will be rewarded.