Atlantaid Interview

Atlantaid Peer Interview with Ben Seidl, Program Director

Author: Carrie Golden, Atlantaid.org

This blog is the first of a Peer Spotlight series in which we interview a member of Atlanta’s international development community. We hope you enjoy “meeting” your peers and delving more deeply into the issues and realities of their work. Please contact atlantaid@gmail.com if you’d like to be put in touch with the interviewee.

ben-seidl-wwr

This blog is the first of a Peer Spotlight series in which we interview a member of Atlanta’s international development community. We hope you enjoy “meeting” your peers and delving more deeply into the issues and realities of their work. Please contact atlantaid@gmail.com if you’d like to be put in touch with the interviewee.

Our first interview is with Ben Seidl of World Water Relief (WWR). As the Program Director, he oversees the implementation and fundraising for WASH in Schools (water, sanitation, and hygiene) projects in the Dominican Republic (DR) and Haiti. WWR has twenty-four school projects that have brought potable water fountains and ongoing initiatives such as education and after-school activities to over 29,000 children. As part of a long-term sustainability commitment, the schools continue to receive weekly monitoring and maintenance, as well as coordination of educational initiatives for ten years. Ben spends about one month a year in Atlanta and kindly agreed to be our guinea pig before returning to Haiti.

How did WWR chose to work with schools?

We decided to work with schools after a lot of research. Schools provide a natural climate because they have infrastructure and an established management group that helps get the program up and running. There is a tight-knit connection between our local staff and our school staff. The school staff do a lot of maintenance and serve as our eyes and ears on the ground for our service team.

Working with kids in schools has been a fun platform. Kids are so curious, motivated and excited to learn about something new. Sometimes it’s hard to rally adults who are ingrained in their ways, but kids offer a fresh start. Informing them about clean water can be powerful as they spread the message to their parents and adults in the community. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s been very productive.

What are some of the benefits for the kids?

Hand-washing is one of the most important interventions for health. Just by hand-washing with soap you can reduce the incidence of gastrointestinal disorders by more than 40%. Providing hand-washing facilities, is one of the most effective ways we can keep kids healthy. The kids have more energy, feel better, miss less school, and study more. Doing better in school ultimately will lead to better outcomes professionally, help them in their livelihoods, and we hope, eventually change the water and sanitation practices of their families and communities.

How do you communicate with your team?

That’s one of the hardest things about international development work. Technology helps. We share files on Dropbox, and we have a weekly Skype calls with the Program Team in the DR and Haiti. We have a meeting with the Executive Team and Board of Directors by conference call. We do have internet and phone in the DR and Haiti, but mostly we communicate through email. As far as communicating with schools locally, we usually rely on face-to-face meetings. There’s a lot of waiting involved. Cell phones aren’t the best because people don’t always have minutes available on their phone or electricity to charge them.

Is there some frustration that pops up over and over again?

Well, often times the lack of financial buy-in due to schools’ limited resources can be frustrating. Schools help and are committed to the idea, but they usually can’t contribute financially. It’s not their fault – they are in a situation where teachers and security can’t even be paid, students don’t have books, and maintenance can’t be done. For example, the replacement filters cost $128 a year, but most of the schools in Haiti we work with are not able to cover that cost.

How do you bring monitoring and evaluation (M&E) into your work?

M&E is hard. We don’t have the institutional resources to conduct this type of wide-spread research and tracking so it ends up being a secondary focus. But we’re beginning to track outcomes with a sustainability checklist that asks about internal processes like effectiveness, production of systems, maintenance issues, how many kids are involved in the programs, and the number of filter changes. It’s so hard to prove that exactly this or that intervention caused the positive outcome because there are so many influencing health factors.

Anecdotally, there have definitely been changes. You should see the kids’ energy levels change when they drink water! Just being able to wash their hands and faces helps them cool down and be more positive. Also, a lot of the schools are saving money and time since the no long have to buy potable water. Instead the money can be used for teacher salaries or books.

Can you talk about ways you coordinate with other international organizations?

We are a partner of WASH Advocates in Washington, D.C., but where we work, there aren’t other organizations doing specific water work in schools. We do connect with other water organizations, even if the context of their work is completely different. And we’ve connected with local experts to help us with aspects like M&E.

What’s the realm of possibilities? Is WWR trying to grow its programs?

We’re adding five projects next year in the Dominican Republic, and the government is committing to finance fifty percent of the project costs. The idea is to bring the program to the regional level and eventually the national level. Right now there is no requirement for public schools to have potable water. Our dream would be for the government to take up the issue on their own. I think policy changes have to happen, but our organizational goals focus on showing what should be and what it can be like. We let the work speak for itself. Policy will follow that.

How has being in Atlanta benefited WWR?

It’s a major business city with a lot of corporate sponsorship opportunities. And there’s a lot going on here, with Emory, CDC, and other organizations to support our work. There are people interested in international work who may not have found another local opportunity to connect to or who previously may not have known people who do this kind of work and are excited to have it be part of their city.

 

Be Sociable, Share!