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Aid group carries on in spirit of slain Portlander

Green Empowerment uses low-tech style in overseas projects


It takes more than just a good idea to save the world. That’s a lesson learned by Green Empowerment, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps bring renewable energy systems to remote villages in the global south.

The tiny operation — seven people on Southwest Yamhill Street and three staff abroad — recently hit nonprofit pay dirt in the form of a $1.4 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development. The money will be used to deliver clean water to Philippines villages over the next three years.

Those staffers will help Filipinos install 38 ram pumps to bring clean water to hilly terrain, where people now walk hours to fetch water by hand. Currently two such pumps are in operation on the island of Mindanao. When all the pumps are operational, they will serve 15,000 people.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF AIDFI - Filipino child scoops out clean water provided via a ram pump in Kabankalan City, Negros Occidental, PhilippinesA ram pump uses pressure caused by water descending in a creek to push some of that water (around one twelfth of the volume) uphill, from where it can be redistributed.

“The beauty of a ram pump is it only has two moving parts and requires no fuel,” says Anna Garwood, executive director of Green Empowerment. “And one of those parts is a door hinge, which is very easy to replace.”

Green Empowerment dates back to 25 years ago, when a young engineer from Portland, Ben Linder, was killed by Nicaraguan Contras while working on a micro-hydro system. His parents raised money and awareness, and the resulting Ben Linder Memorial Fund became Green Empowerment, continuing his work using green energy as a development tool.

The organization also helps install solar power and micro-hydro systems in Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, Malaysia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and along the Thailand/Burma border.

Losing energy

Some international nonprofits, known as non-governmental organizations or NGOs, have gotten a bad rap for being well-intentioned but ineffective, from the Green Revolution of the 1960s to the cluster-fail in post-quake Haiti when the relief money ran out.

Green Empowerment’s model is to work with local groups so that when the NGO inevitably pulls out, the energy infrastructure can be maintained by those who use it.

“We’re very bottom up,” Garwood says. The group provides technical assistance but sees its role as “catalyzing the leadership of the groups that already exist,” she says.

The Portland group seeks to connect green engineers like Ben Linder internationally. “We’ve built a whole network of groups using small wind and bio-digesters in Latin America,” Garwood says.

In Mindanao, one partner is the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation Inc., which makes the pumps and installs them. Green Empowerment did research and development to see if the pump was right for the community. 

“The villagers work really hard for these systems, donating labor, spending months digging trenches,” Garwood says.

Cell phones crucial

She studied anthropology at university and is sensitive to issues of modernization. “In the 11 years I’ve worked in this field I’ve never met anyone who said, ‘We’d rather live without electricity and walk a mile for water.’ “ She has also heard anecdotal reports of people leaving the big cities to return to their villages, once there is clean water, sanitation and cell phone service. 

Phone service is a big driver of electrification. Cell coverage often arrives before the electrical grids serving homes. Many villagers on Green Empowerment’s map charge their phones every week or two when they go to market. With talking and texting, people can keep in touch with family members who moved to the city. Phones also help in business, to know when the next delivery truck is arriving.

“We see electricity as a platform for other uses, like carpentry shops, grain mills and health clinics, and other ideas the locals come up with for improving their livelihood,” Garwood says.

In Burma, Green Empowerment has helped electrify 37 rural health clinics, partnering with a nonprofit called The Border Green Energy Team. A health clinic in this sense can be little more than some lights, a cooler for vaccines and a microscope hooked to a laptop. Staff walked for days to Thailand to learn how to use the technology. They carried it home on their backs to Burma. 

The mantra that simple solutions are best does not always apply.

For example, Garwood says a cheap way to sanitize water is to put it in a clear plastic container on the roof and let the sun’s UV rays kill the bugs over a couple of days. However, locals often reject the method because the water still looks dirty. 

In addition to ram pumps, the Philippines project includes latrines, watershed protection and rainwater harvesting. Again, something that might seem obvious — capturing rainwater from the roofs of homes — is not so obvious to these villagers, because it requires gutters, and a way of dumping the first wave of water, which brings dust and debris. 

“What’s going to make or break a project in the end is all the human components,” Garwood says. “The ‘big team of us experts coming in’ is not our model: Build beautiful-looking infrastructure, take a picture, leave, and then a wire comes loose and no one knows how to fix it.”


Shoddy solar doesn't help

Portland's international aid behemoth Mercy Corps has encountered similar situations to Green Empowerment. When it wanted to bring a camping lantern with a tiny photovoltaic solar panel to rural Uganda, it researched what lantern type would work best, and where it would come from. Mercy Corps matched customers such as refugee families with solar companies and entrepreneurial local shop keepers (distributors) and microfinance institutions. 

The result: Mercy Corps didn't actually handle any of the lanterns; it marketed them. Its staff explained that local children will be able to study past sundown.

A lot of cheap, shoddy solar PV systems have flooded the market in the developing world, says David Nicholson, Mercy Corps’ acting director for climate change and environment. They are useless if they break down in six months and are unfixable.

"It's not sustainable to think nonprofits can be handing out new shiny technology which, when it breaks, people go back to their old ways," he says.

"I've traveled around East Africa and seen these giant skeletons of biogas systems, rusting," Nicholson says. “Generally, the more complicated the technology, the closer you have to be to someone who can fix it."