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Many energetic students volunteer in developing countries to make an impact on less privileged communities. Some bring back glorious stories of success, while others come back in frustration. After a recent humanitarian research project, I have come to appreciate the value of the frustrating experiences. These experiences provide subtle, et important clues as to why many developing communities stagnate in poverty. I believe it is the failure to understand these less obvious driving forces of poverty that cause even giant organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to fail in major development projects. But most importantly, these experiences teach us the value of perseverance in development work while ignoring bureaucratic fluff.
This story begins at Harvard University, where a small research team developed a low-cost prototype robot based on feedback given by humanitarian deminers. The robot was to be used to perform area reduction in uncharted territory. Area reduction is the first phase of any demining project where a large area is reduced to smaller plots of suspected regions. Since area reduction is done in lands abandoned for decades, current techniques require deminers to cut and burn the vegetation. Our effort was to develop a low-cost robotic platform that could assist in area reduction while eliminating the need to damage vegetation. Since moving through tropical vegetation is extremely challenging for a robotic platform, the prototype robot had to be tested in an affected region in Sri Lanka.
I decided to sacrifice a piece of my luggage to take the prototype robot on my way to Sri Lanka on July 9. One of my Radcliffe research partners, Lahiru Jayathilaka, who worked on the robot’s perception and reaction, planned to meet me in Sri Lanka on July 10 to carry out field trials. I had informed the defense attaché of the Sri Lankan embassy in Washington, D.C., about this transfer and had requested him to inform the customs at the airport in Colombo and the Ministry of Defense to avoid delays. Both the defense attaché and the Sri Lankan ambassador promised to extend their full support.
As planned, I landed in Colombo with my wife, two kids, and our luggage. To my astonishment, the customs had no clue about my transporting the robot to Sri Lanka. They decided to detain it in the airport and ordered me to bring a special letter from the Ministry of Defense to reclaim the box. They also told me to bring along enough Sri Lankan money to pay a fine and tax. I agreed to the fine but questioned why I should pay tax on a university prototype with no commercial value. Based on arbitrary criteria, one officer estimated a value of 5,000 rupees for the parts, and another estimated a value of 10,000 rupees. Finally, after some negotiation, they settled on the value of 5,000 rupees as both fine and tax. My tired and embarrassed family had to wait for more than an hour at the airport until the drama was over.
After one week, I went to the airport with the letter given by the Ministry of Defence. I paid a fine and the arbitrarily calculated tax. Interestingly, the cashier did not return my balance. An accompanying air force officer volunteered to get me the balance. Later, I found out that it was standard practice for the cashier to keep the balance for detained items.
We forgot this episode and were determined to test the robot on real rough terrain. After many weeks of jumping through hoops and pulling strings, we were given a rush appointment to test the robot on August 21, a week prior to both Lahiru’s and my departure from Sri Lanka. It was a memorable day for us because what we saw in the faces of the demining units and the commanders of the engineers’ brigade of the Sri Lankan army simply made all of those frustrations worth it. When the soldiers saw that Lahiru and I were finding it difficult to unload the robot from our vehicle, more than 10 of them rushed over to volunteer. It was raining at Ambilipitiya training camp that day, and soldiers were holding umbrellas above our equipment. We tested the robot in different terrains with varying degrees of thickness of vegetation. Everyone on the field that day was thrilled! The robot walked on mud and survived the rain, but it did get stuck in some vegetation. Expert officers gave us feedback and promised continuous field support for our work. We had just witnessed two very different sides of the people we were trying to help.
There are a few lessons we learned out of this experience. Often, it is highly likely that you will ask yourself: “Why did I volunteer when these people don’t want to find solutions to their own problems?” You will wonder why you exhaust yourself with seemingly ridiculous bureaucratic collisions. Be determined and have patience—you will reach the layers that appreciate your generosity. Then—and only then—will you see the beauty of the country you are volunteering in. Moreover, you will see massive opportunities for reforms in the system on the flip side of the frustrating experience. It is worth the wait! But remember to record the frustrating experiences so that we can collectively work to improve the systems that keep victimizing nearly five billion of the world’s population.
Thrishantha Nanayakkara was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study from 2008-2009, co-sponsored by the Harvard Committee on Human Rights. He is on the faculty of King’s College, London.
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