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Community ownership at heart of VSO assignment

'PAPUA NEW Guinea - oh, I always wanted to go to Africa', was Robert Buckley's initial reaction when he discovered Voluntary Services Overseas had placed him there on a water engineering assignment. He soon discovered the mistake in his geography when he went out to the South East Asian island country.

He was sent to help set up rural water supplies. His job was design and implementation, but the communities actually built them. He has just returned from his 18 month assignment and has submitted a 4,000 word report to the ICE which sponsored his time overseas.

'The emphasis was very much to lend assistance to keep the community 'owning the project', ' says Buckley.

'This makes the project a lot harder to build but should increase the chances of its sustainability.'

During his time in Papua New Guinea, Buckley was involved on more than 20 projects, seeing about five through to completion. He worked for the Appropriate Technology and Community Development Institute. Each project started with a request for help from a community to the institute. Buckley would then assess the community's needs.

'For a week or so, I would live with the community, eating staples such as sago (palm tree bark) and sleeping in a bamboo house. In that time, I would make a thorough investigation of the community and its water resources, ' explains Buckley.

Once an appropriate design had been decided and funds were received from donors such as the World Bank, materials would be purchased and Buckley would go on site for construction.

Some innovative technology was needed, he says. 'For the water supply at Muschu Island we used Ram Pump technology - an ingenious type of pump that uses the potential energy in a falling column of water and the water hammer effect to raise water by the power of the water itself.'

Buckley enthuses about his assignment but stresses there were trying times - not least the language barrier.

There are more than 800 different languages used on the island. The colonials developed a basic common language Tok Pisin which is still used.

'Perhaps the most challenging moment was a pre-construction public meeting. I had to address the meeting in Tok Pisin which I had never used before, ' said Buckley. 'I have never experienced so many harsh questions and everyone was wearing bush machetes for cutting through the jungle so it was rather intimidating.'

Buckley often had to improvise.

'During the materials shipment, somebody was pilfering at every location. We ended up being more than 2km short of pipework for the Muschu project. We had to think on our feet and we managed to use some pipes from another spring.

'Despite the problems, six months later, the project was delivering water for a population of 2,000.'

Buckley recommends voluntary project work but adds a note of caution. 'It is a leap of faith into the unknown. It is not all sandy beaches. I would advise people to think hard and do as much research as possible beforehand.'

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