How Do You Define "Success"?

By Susan Studer King

How do you define “success” in an international development project? Anyone that’s spent much time doing this type of work has at least pondered, if not struggled, with this question. As a Peace Corps volunteer working with the Waorani, I had many challenging but rewarding experiences, one of which was becoming de facto project coordinator for an international service trip for students. This trip made me contemplate not only what success means, but why we feel the need to label our experiences as successes or failures.


Modern sanitation?

First, a few words about the Waorani.  A small, formerly semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer indigenous group, the Waorani were made famous through various feature films and books, like Joe Kane’s Savages, that chronicled their fateful encounters with missionaries in the 1950’s and their more modern conflicts with multinational oil companies. The Waorani are perceived with equal parts fascination and fear by Westerners, yet they arguably occupy the bottom rung of Ecuador’s complex and hierarchical socio-cultural ladder.

Perhaps this has made them all the more intriguing to sociologists, photographers, anthropologists, biologists and adventure seekers who traveled across the globe to “study” or “help” them.  The Waorani Women’s Association for whom I worked inevitably asked me to communicate with these cowode (their term for anyone not Waorani).  This often involved the women dictating formal communiques for me to then send along on their behalf.

One such inquiry involved a group of nine Duke University students.  Part of an elite scholarship program, the undergraduates secured funds to spend a month working with the Waorani on projects where their skills could be best utilized while they also pursued their own research interests including medicinal plants, linguistics and renewable energy. I became the go-between for the Waorani and the volunteers.

Unlike many other well-meaning but relatively clueless groups I’d interacted with, these students did do a fair amount of homework prior to coming to Ecuador. They planned the trip for months and did extensive reading and research about the Waorani prior to flying south.

After a lot of back and forth between the students and the women’s association, we finally came up with a proposed workplan that involved agroforestry, ecological sanitation, and water projects. As with most international service trips, this month-long stay was filled with a fair amount of intrigue, drama and outtakes (read a full recap of all the bloopers). Through the experience, the students learned a few important things:

Good communication means working with the community, not doing things for the community, and asking the right questions.  Rather than simply swooping in and announcing “we’re here to help you!”, the students divided up into teams that combined students and community members, trying to be as inclusive and participatory as possible. The tree nursery team consisted of primarily Waorani women and a few gringo gals who worked collaboratively to collect and start seeds for the women to care for before they are transplanted near their homes.

By contrast the composting toilet project had more volunteers than Waorani, possibly because the community wasn’t as convinced of its utility as we thought they were. This is where asking more questions would have been useful.  The community wanted to attract tourists and knew that offering a bathroom was an important part of providing accommodations for guests. Not unlike other projects in the region, everyone fell victim to the “if you build it they will come” philosophy that never panned out as planned. Tourists did not flock to the village.

Meanwhile, the villagers were not using the toilet either.  We didn’t ask their opinions on the design or if they would use it. Interestingly, one reason the Waorani gave for not using the composting toilet was that they really wanted a “modern” toilet like what is in the cities—and what was installed in another community downriver. Yet as the photo above illustrates, these “modern” toilets being installed in the middle of the jungle were draining directly into the river.


The simple composting toilet constructed by students and Waorani community members.

Low tech, readily available materials and ingenuity are important, as is a little extra budget for spare parts. The projects were designed to use supplies generally found in the small, locally owned hardware stores that dotted the provincial capital and most towns.  All the supplies for composting toilets, seed nurseries and water catchment systems were relatively inexpensive and easy to find.

Of course, we didn’t think some key supplies would break before we could actually use them.  Like most intrepid rainforest inhabitants of the region, the Waorani were incredibly gifted at finding vines, wood, leaves, and other natural resources to improvise repairs.  But despite these talents, there simply was no all-natural substitute for a threaded plastic part to control the flow of water from the water tank, for example. Thus, when budgets allow, having extra parts on hand is a good idea.

Part of planning for contingencies and being flexible go hand in hand. When you’re working on any construction project, sh#t happens.  When you’re working in a lesser developed country, magnify sh#t by ten. Our first foray into a Waorani community was delayed an entire day due to landslides closing the main highway out of town. The second was delayed when the key to the outboard motor went missing, then the bus got stuck after supplies piled atop the bus got snagged on some low-hanging wires, then we realized that we had underestimated the number of canoes we’d need to transport workers and supplies.

Layer on the usual ya mismo (roughly translated as “any minute now”—but can mean anything from four minutes to four days) delays typical in Ecuador (and, to be fair, in many other countries) and we’re suddenly talking some serious chunks of time–time that seems “wasted” at least according to typical North American sensibilities.

So can we define the project as a success?  Some of the students applied what they learned, and some of the Waorani made choices that improved their lives.  A few months after finishing the work with the students, I returned to the village. The plant nursery was still operational and the palms would soon reach maturity such that the women would be able to use the fibers from the plants to make and sell crafts. The toilet fell into disuse for lack of tourists, and the water catchment system was at least operational, albeit not well maintained.

The concept of success, not unlike our perceptions of timeliness, have different meanings in different cultures;  clearly, what most high-achieving North Americans consider successful is a quite different than that of the Waorani. The Waorani word for good life, Waaponi, was used a lot during our time together. Success? Perhaps not. Was that satisfying? Definitely. And in this line of work, that’s almost as scarce.

Susan Studer King served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Habitat Conservation program where she worked side by side with the Waorani Women’s Association (Association de Mujeres Waorani de la Amazonia Ecuatoriana, AMWAE) in Ecuador to help build internal organizational capacity and to improve handicraft production and commercialization. She serves as co-chair of the Amazon Partnerships Board of Directors.


Mary Fifield