Thursday, February 19, 2009


I spent last week in Guatemala for work. We had a regional workshop on emergency shelter construction. A large part of my job involves emergency preparedness and response, and thus far I've been lucky enough to avoid any of the response aspect. Why lucky? Because I don't have a lot of on-the-ground experience in emergency anything, other than a hurricane or two and some mild earthquakes.

Our faithful supervisors

My favorite part of the workshop was constructing the shelter. So often we project managers pass the time in an office and supervise the work being done from the comfort of our desk. Now, I love being in the field and getting my hands dirty, but because my organization does not directly implent projects and instead works through local partners, I rarely get to do it.

We traveled to Chiquimulilla, near the border with El Salvador, and were tasked with building a model shelter similar to what we would do in our emergency projects all over the world. (A model that is always adapted to local customs and materials, of course.) It was a great experience, in spite of building one of the ugliest things I have ever seen!
We had planned one full day of work; it took one and a half. We planned to have the materials prepped and ready for construction; they weren't. The wood was supposed to be light and pliable; it was so heavy and dense we had to run back to the hardware store to get special nails. I could go on. My favorite part of the day was when Don Andres, the elderly Guatemalan man whose property we built the shelter on, came over and said with no hint of levity, "Hay muchos errores. There are a lot or errors."

This looks like the start of a bad joke: How many NGO workers does it take to measure some wood?

Don Andres, surveying the damage

In spite of all the snafus, it was a great experience. In fact it was a great experience because of the snafus. In our group we had architects, engineers, doctors, people with master degrees... and we could barely follow a simple manual. Now imagine you are an illiterate widow in Indonesia after the tsunami and some organization has just come and given you this manual. It was humbling and a reminder that the person we seek to serve is the beneficiary.

The final product, warts and all.

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