The garbage people: unintended consequences of change

With a capacity for 20 000 people, the cave church of St. Simon are said to be the largest Christian church in the Middle East.  The church’s limestone walls have breath-taking carvings.  Getting there requires travelling through a section of Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser neighborhood known as the garbage city. This is breath-taking in a completely different way…

Your senses alert you that this is the garbage city, the putrid smell is intense and there is garbage everywhere.  Garbage fills the narrow streets, the balconies, kids play in it and the shops are hidden between garbage. Garbage city is home to the Zabaleen (garbage people).  The Zabaleen travels from house-to-house in Cairo, collecting household waste and transporting the collected waste back to the garbage city. Each family specialize in a type of garbage that they sort, recycle and sell.

Until 2003 the Zabaleen collected garbage at almost no cost to the government and residents of Cairo.  Their main income came from recycling the garbage.  It’s estimated that in 2003 the Zabaleen recycled 80% of the garbage collected.  This was described as one of the most efficient recycling systems globally and it has earned the Zabaleen international acknowledgement.



View from the car window


The Zabaleen are Christians in a Muslim majority country.  In the recycling business this provides them with a competitive advantage: the ability to keep pigs.  The Muslim’s religion does not permit living close to or keeping pigs. Most of the waste collected is food waste; the Zabaleen recycles this by feeding it to their pigs to fattening them up.  Once fat, the pigs are sold, providing further income.

The improvement: fake green grass on the other side of the fence

In 2003, the Mubarak government decided to ‘modernize’ the garbage collection system of Cairo by adopting the systems used in Europe.

Unintended consequences of the change

  • Adverse impact on the socio-economic stability of the Zabaleen
  • The modern mechanism of compressing garbage complicated recycling and the level of recycling dropped
  • Cairo’s streets were too narrow for the mechanized equipment, uncollected garbage was dumped by the residents
  • The new collection system introduced higher fees resulting in further illegal dumping, burning of waste and increased pollution

To compare: in 1997 the Zabaleen collected 3000- 4000 tons of garbage per day at almost no cost to the government; they recycled about 80% of the waste collected.  In 2004 the government was paying ten times more to have only 60% of the garbage collected and 20% of the collected garbage was recycled.


Then in 2009, the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of some 300 000 pigs as precautionary measure to prevent swine flu (H1N1). This effectively destroyed another vital aspect of the Zabaleen’s recycling methods.  The WHO called the killing ‘scientifically unjustified’. The government’s actions against the Zabaleen was almost certainly politically motivated and grounded in religious tensions.

Moral of the story

There is a tendency to view another country, organization or functional work unit’s methods as superior.  It is problematic when these methods are adopted without considering feasibility, cultural differences and why the current system operates the way it does. There is always a reason for the faults in the current system, a few examples would include hierarchies, history or power struggles.



The grass is not always greener on the other side….


Even in healthcare, when low-middle income countries (LMIC) undertake to improve their healthcare systems, they often model their interventions after high income countries (HIC).  However, HIC have the enabling infrastructure to support advanced health systems. In LMIC’s with poor roads, it would be more sustainable to invest in bicycle ambulances than to establish ambulance services.  Rather than develop university curriculums, train community first responders in the rural areas.  Instead of creating an urban center of excellence, provide electricity and running tap water in all the small rural clinics.

To the Egyptians, investing in the Zabaleen’s existing informal system would’ve probably been more beneficial, cost effective and sustainable.  By disregarding the functioning informal system, the policy makers destroyed a functioning system and adopted a system not suitable for their setting.  This resulted in failure so devastating that it’s even been cited as a reason for the 2011 uprising.

There are a few lessons that we can take from this:

  • Don’t discard local ownership
  • Thoroughly observe and analyze the current situation prior to suggesting change
  • The above implies spending time to explore the current situation
  • The first consideration should always be to augment the local/informal system or to formalize the informal system
  • If the solution is adopted, make it context specific, in other words innovate on what worked somewhere else
  • When formal systems are developed it should be done considering the integration of formal and informal systems from the beginning

Disregarding the above will result in change programs that are not sustainable.  Not integrating formal and informal systems result in parallel systems where the systems compete to the detriment of both.


A year after implementing the ‘modern’ system the Egyptian policy makers had to acknowledge failure. A decade later they are taking steps to integrate the Zabaleen into the formal system.  They are also investing in the Zabaleen that now have uniforms and vehicles.

In short, don’t solve problems that don’t require solving, observe, investigate and find the real and right problems.  Solutions should be feasible, involve the locals and the informal systems and don’t ever blindly adopt, rather innovate and make change context-specific.

To watch a short documentary about the garbage people

Read more

Wael Salah Fahmi. Keith Sutton.  (2006)  Cairo’s Zabaleen garbage recyclers: multi-nationals take over and state relocation plans.  Habitat International 30 (2006) 809-837


Making sense…learning about sense-making

Remember the movie ‘Back to the future’ where Marty (Michael J. Fox) travels through time, whilst figuring out what is happening and how to influence the future whilst simultaneously dealing with the current situation?

It reminds me of sense-making. Sense-making is about how we give meaning to a situation. Sense-making is based in our decisions and beliefs and it is influenced by aspects such as power relations, hierarchy, autonomy, linguistics, temporalization (focus on now, the past or the future), justification, culture and traditional society, equality, bargaining power, locus of control, openness to change. Sense-making is done individually or collectively in organizations and communities.  Capturing these underlying nuances in our perceptions allows deeper insights into why an organization or community are angry, failing, succeeding, innovating, etc.

Brenda Dervin, Gary Klein, Karl Weick and David Snowden are a few of the contributors to sense-making. They all describe their own theory about sense-making either as individual or collective activity.  Snowden combined several sense-making theories into one tool.  For my studies I am using his tool to capture community perspectives regarding cost as a barrier to access emergency care. 

Today I’m sharing my understanding of Brenda Dervin’s metaphor for sense-making.  Dervin sees sense-making as the individual activity of information seeking, processing, recreating and application. Information is described as a tool designed by humans whilst making sense of reality.  Methods of communication and the application of information (knowledge) are key aspects of sense-making.

The metaphor 


It starts in a time-space milieu, implying constant energy and movement. This environment is never static and time-space energy propels us forward or pulls us back, always fluctuating and never stable.

Moving through time-space we have Mr. Squiggly.  Humans are depicted as squiggly because we are caught between certainty and uncertainty.  Thus there is a constant flux within the person (internal) and between the person and the environment (external).  Mr. Squiggly carries an umbrella, symbolizing mind-set, perceived constraints and enablers. (I feel that it should be a backpack – demonstrating our baggage).

Mr Squiggly.png

Whilst moving through time-space, a gap or barrier is encountered. For the purposes of my work, the gap is a life-threatening injury or illness requiring urgent care. The gap can however be any barrier or difficulty in daily life (in an organization it could be new policies, a new boss etc.). The gap forces Mr. Squiggly to stop until a way has been found to ‘bridge’ the gap and reach an outcome.

The outcome depends on how the gap is bridged.  Some potential outcomes are not obvious in the beginning and it may only become apparent retrospectively, influencing future decisions and beliefs.

Moving from situation to outcome requires a bridge. The building blocks used to build the bridge consists of different types of blocks.  One being the individual mind-set, during a life-threatening emergency it would include individual beliefs about health, healthcare, medication, culture. Building blocks also include inputs from others, the stories within the community about a time that something similar happened to someone else, financial hardships suffered, patient outcome etc.  Mr. Squiggly consciously and unconsciously use all the information in the form of building blocks to create the bridge.

Once the bridge is built, Mr. Squiggly can leap across the bridge to the outcome; this is aptly called gap-bridging.  The building blocks of information is now applied, thus knowledge are created. Dervin use the term ‘verbing’ as an important gap-bridging and sense-making tool.  Everyday examples of verbing include the use of words for example emailing, googling or ubering. Verbing thus occurs when a noun is turned into a verb, creating action or experience.  It certainly fits a methodology where knowledge is seen as a context-specific sense-making activity in a specific point in time and space.

 teh gap.png

I’m using sense-making to capture the various roles within a community perceive gaps, bridge gaps and view the outcomes during a life-threatening injury or illness. Perceptions will be captured using a type of narrative enquiry, where the participant is asked to tell a descriptive story.  After telling the story, the storyteller explains the meaning of their own story by indexing it onto a predesigned framework.  This is very different from ‘traditional’ research where the investigator assigns meaning to the stories. Neutral questioning is used to guide the indexing.  Questions are framed in such a way to capture the nuanced aspects of hierarchy, autonomy, equality etc.  After capturing, the data are combined and the software allows for it to be visually displayed, enabling easy identification of patterns and trends.  More details on the software are a story for another day.

This technique has been applied to monitor, evaluate, communicate, and create feedback loops in projects, organizations, communities and even broader society.

I am using sense-making because I’m passionate about the voice of the ‘voiceless’ in organizations and communities.  I feel that tacit knowledge is often overlooked.  Sense-making provides a tool to capture many voices, combine the different perspectives and seek common ground, emerging trends or underlying moods. This is powerful, whether in an organization, community or development project. It prevents the implementation of one perspective, ‘outside’ views or only top-down approaches. Inclusive sustainable implementation requires more than one story, one perspective and more than one type of knowledge.

 As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her powerful TED talk about the danger of a single story:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”


I adapted the pictures from: Facing a gappy situation. Sense-making methodology: communicating communicatively with campaign audience.  Dervin, B. 2003.  In Dervin B, Foreman-Wernet L (Eds). Sense-making methodology reader: selected writings of Brenda Dervin, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press 2003.

Emergency care in Africa: There is no free lunch…

Let hunger be ranked first because if you are hungry you cannot work! No, health is number one, because if you are ill you cannot work! – Discussion group ranking; Musanya Village, Zambia1

The basic economic premise states that our wants are unlimited but our resources to obtain our wants are limited. On an individual level this implies that we are constantly prioritising desires in order to afford the most important ones (I’m using the word desire as an umbrella term for needs and wants). Sometimes we prioritize in a conscious way through budgeting, negotiating with our partners, saving for large expenditures or investing. At other times it’s automatic and we are largely unaware of the process. These ‘automatic’ decisions are based on beliefs and values, rooted in our culture, community and environment.

Every so often the desires are mutually exclusive and choosing one option means giving up on another, thus we make trade-offs or sacrifices. Our willingness to make a trade-off depends on the perceived benefit of the chosen option. The trade-off is not always financial, convenience or time might be valued more than cost. If the benefit is unknown or uncertain, the trade-off is viewed as risky and not worth the effort or cost.

Economics 101

  • Humans have unlimited needs and limited resources
  • We can’t have everything that we need or want
  • What you are willing to give up depends on what you get out of it (the benefit)
  • The decision is not always easy


The relation between income, benefit and trade-off can be seen in the triangle. Income represents the ability to raise financial resources to pay for care and it includes savings, obtaining a loan, etc. Benefit refers to treatment outcome and adequacy of emergency care. The trade-off is the sacrifice made to afford the benefit.

For people living in Africa the benefit is murky and the cost high. Ambulance services are rudimentary limiting the ability to obtain care at the site of injury, transport to definitive care or care during transit. Upon arrival at the health facility, Africans are burdened with out-of-pocket payments prior to stabilisation, resuscitation or basic care. In addition, due to low government investment, healthcare facilities create alternative funding methods to afford supplies, staff etc. These methods generally involve requesting (demanding) supplementary payments, known as informal payments, bribes or gifts. Paying these allows the patient to skip the queue, get a bed and receive care. Other cost considerations are the ‘hidden’ or indirect costs including the travelling costs, transportation, carer accommodation, waiting time and lost income opportunities.

Sadly, these expenditures are incurred to obtain care in facilities where infrastructure is lacking. Running tap water, electricity, basic equipment or medication are not a given. Also healthcare providers are often not well-equipped with basic emergency care skills.

Trade-offs are made in order to afford the care and may include

  • Reducing the household’s food consumption and budget
  • Selling a girl child into underage marriage
  • Selling assets such as livestock or dwelling
  • Removing children from school
  • Child labour
  • Selling foodstuffs like maize
  • Taking out loans at a high interest rates
  • If there’s more than one patient, prioritising care for one member at the expense of another

Basically, accessing emergency care requires massive trade-offs for a very uncertain benefit. An alternative is to not access care and hope for the best. This becomes a reasonable option when one considers that each year approximately 25 million Africans are pushed into poverty due to healthcare expenditure. Catastrophic health expenditure is calculated in various ways; however most methods exclude informal, indirect costs and the depletive sacrifices. The entire household suffers the repercussions of financial ruin.


Emergency care benefits only the patient. The household makes the sacrifice so that one person can potentially benefit. It’s further complicated due to the urgency, emergency care requires time-critical interventions and delaying care can be devastating. The decisions taken shortly after a traumatic incident are probably not well-thought through, rational or informed. Predicting the required sacrifices is confounded due to different types of cost, changing costing structures and a whole lot of unknowns. It’s a tough call.

When we are involved in developing and strengthening systems in other communities than our own, we need to be aware that as outsiders we don’t understand the daily reality of those we serve. We can’t assume the local needs, wants, trade-offs and norms. Our observations are clouded by our own bias. This can be overcome by establishing ways to enable community participation that allows the implementation of sustainable and locally owned interventions.

On another level, advocacy for the greater good of accessible care includes continued lobbying for universal access to healthcare. Emergency care, especially out-of-hospital systems can significantly reduce cost as a barrier to access care.

                        For me a good life is to be healthy1 – Old Man Ethiopia

This blog includes some aspects that I addressed at the BADem symposium regarding the trade-offs that people make in Africa to access healthcare.

  1. Dying for change, poor people’s experience of health and ill-health. World Bank Study 2000.




The logframe…time to move on?

‘Those development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable.’ (Natsios, ex USAID 2010)

Are resource rich funders obsessed with linear planning methods that have measurable interventions? Logical frameworks, showing the trajectory of the proposed project seems to be a prerequisite by most funders. 

The logical framework (logframe) forms the methodological basis for the project.  The framework is designed in such a way that activities lead ‘logically’ to outputs, outcomes and impact.  Six elements are used to evaluate the activities namely relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, impact, sustainability and contribution.  The logical, linear approach forces the project planning team to think about the required steps in order to achieve the outcomes.  

A concern with such a well-planned trajectory is that once set, it becomes rigid leaving little space to learn by doing or make adjustments as the projects progresses. And because it is logical and linear, it runs a risk of being overly narrow and focused.  In some projects focus and rigidity is good.  However in projects that involve multiple stakeholders, focused rigid outcomes runs the risk of reducing the project to simple measurable interventions as opposed to harder to measure sustainable long-term change.

For example community projects with multiple stakeholders are complex with unknown realities and variables. Considerations during the planning phase include multiple stakeholder priorities, diverse cultures, genders, educational backgrounds and experiences. Establishing appropriate indicators prior to commencing the project is difficult.  Some factors will change as the project matures and the rigid ‘logical’ framework may be unable to respond to the emerging knowledge. As such logframes could prevent learning from doing and it prevents tapping into innovative local solutions.

Thus Logframes are not feasible for every project. Participatory approaches including sense-making and PDCA cycles are alternatives that funders need to consider as opposed to linear progression.  In most participatory approaches monitoring is perceived as a learning process whereas in logical frameworks there is a strict separation between planning and implementation. Participatory approaches engage all stakeholders and allow flexibility. On the downside it costs more, is labour intensive and the outcomes may be less measurable.

In the end the method chosen consider the type of project and the priorities.  Participatory approaches work well in complex multi-factor projects requiring change and innovative concepts.  Logframes work well for straightforward projects e.g. vaccination campaign. 



Making EFAR stick

There is no question about the need to develop better emergency care systems in low and middle income countries (LMIC).  However, the significant barriers to developing the systems may appear daunting and unattainable.  This is partially because any emergency care system need to start within the community or wherever incidents may occur, continue with care during transportation of the patient and allow early appropriate treatment at a healthcare facility.

Developing a system across the above continuum is complicated in LMIC’s.  It is expensive and requires the presence of enabling factors external to healthcare.  Examples of the enabling factors include sufficient technology and infrastructure such as telecommunications and roads.

As mentioned in a previous blog, an alternative and/or parallel strategy is to enhance the ability of the community to respond during an emergency.  This is feasible even in areas where healthcare facilities are scarce, roads non-existent and telecommunications lacking.

Developing community responder systems are based on a fundamental principle that developing a basic capacity to render emergency care can be simple, efficient and cost-effective. To ensure sustainability, the following should be considered:

  • Mismatching

The trained members need to either live or work within the community.  This might sound obvious, but often it is not.  Also, training economically active people may result in these people not being within the community most hours of the day.  Design should thus involve training the employed, pensioners, people who work within the community (they might even travel from outside the community to work there) and the unemployed.

  • Managing expectation

Training the unemployed and even the employed may lead to another problem: expectation.  People might participate with the expectation of getting a job or advancing their career and receiving job opportunities.  Expectations needs to be managed by being upfront about what the community responder program is about and what is required from trained community members.

Community members may experience a downer after the initial high of being equipped with life-saving skills, or they may be traumatised by exposure to critically ill and injured people.  Early attention to ways to keep members motivated, engaged and supported emotionally is required.

  • Integration of formal/informal system

If there is a formal ambulance system, the informal (community) and formal systems should be integrated. Community members may feel intimidated by formal emergency care practitioners, and the formal practitioners may not help the situation.  This seems to be a major difficulty when implementing community systems.

  • Equipment and innovation

The other barrier to sustaining community first aid responder programs is the availability of equipment and stock, including splints, bandages and gloves.  In LMIC’s even in healthcare facilities these are scarce items.  Yet if it was freely accessible, it may be impractical to carry stock around at all times.  This makes a case for training the community members ways to improvise and innovate.

A deterrent to continued participation is the cost of phones and airtime for telecommunications with formal emergency services and/or hospitals.

  • Other

Concerns from the community may include if and how good Samaritan legislation would protect them, the need for documentation and remaining current with training and skills.

one tier system

The two tier system.  Mould-Millan et al. 2014

Further discussion

Emergency care competes with an existing bias from foreign funders to fund vertical disease programs, with early and easy measurable outcomes.  For policy makers there is competing budgetary priorities and poor economic growth.

So when advocating for the development of emergency care systems, we need to motivate for cost-effective, easy to implement systems whilst simultaneously developing the more expensive formal systems. Formal systems would include tertiary training, specialization of medical practitioners etc.

Training community volunteers to provide early emergency care and stabilisation can save lives and prevent disability.  The training provided and subsequent informal system needs to be context-specific, defined by the community and their needs.  The greatest challenge after obtaining funding is integrating the participatory community system within formal more bureaucratic systems.

Read more

Jayamaran S, Mabweijano J, Lipnick M, et al. First things first: effectiveness and scalability of a basic prehospital trauma care program for lay first-responders in Kampala, Uganda.  PLoS One 2009; 4: e6955

Mould-Millman NK, et al. AFEM Consensus Conference, 2013.  AFEM out-of-hospital emergency care workgroup consensus paper: advancing out-of-hospital emergency care in Africa – advocacy and development.  African Journal of Emergency Medicine. 2014; 4:90-95

Sasser S, Varghese M, Kellerman A, Lormand JD. Prehospital trauma care systems. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

Tiska MA, et al. A model of prehospital trauma training for lay persons devised in Africa. Emergency Medicine Journal. 2004; 21:237 – 9



EFAR: a sustainable way to increase access to emergency care

Low and middle-income countries not only suffer the highest rates of every category of injury, they also have the highest rates of acute complications for communicable disease, maternal death and under-5 mortality (Jamison et al., 2012). Sadly these countries are the least likely to have established and effective emergency care systems.

When developing emergency care systems, lower-income countries often strive to duplicate systems from higher income countries. Implementing what has worked in high-income countries is a problematic strategy for various reasons: high-income countries have enabling infrastructure in place.  This is external from healthcare and includes roads, technology, telecommunications, and developed micro-financing/other insurance schemes.  Legislation and government policy also influences the success of the healthcare system.  Higher income countries government expenditure on healthcare is typically much higher than the expenditure in lower-income countries.

A strategy that might be more appropriate in lower-resource settings is to involve the community.  Engaging communities through the EFAR concept is a low-cost, context-appropriate strategy.  It allows for the community to bridge the gap whilst infrastructure and formal health systems are advanced.

So you might be wondering how teaching people first aid could be considered a national strategy.  There are two main differences between EFAR and first aid.  The first is that EFAR’s are integrated with the coordinated response system.  Secondly EFAR programs are designed to be context-specific and are adapted to the needs within the specific location.  This is a very different from ‘formal’ first aid courses that are designed to be generic.  EFAR training is aimed at teaching participants to manage conditions that they are likely to see within their context.  As example in Ghana out-of-hospital systems are not yet adequate, and long-distance truck drivers are likely to be on scene first.  Thus Ghanaian truck drivers were taught the basic principles when treating motor vehicle accident patients and basic scene management.




EFAR was also implemented in the gangster-ridden areas of Manenberg and Lavender Hill in Cape Town.  Cape Town has a well-established ambulance service, however there is some difficulties responding into gangster-ridden areas and informal areas with unmarked roads etc. There have been some difficulties with sustaining EFAR in these areas and it’s been suggested that integrating the informal system into a well-developed system is trickier than when the system is not yet matured.  For example in Zambia, EFAR has been rolled out to some of the country’s most rural areas.  This project has been ongoing since 2013 and a recent site visit (formal report pending) suggests that it is functioning well.

In Cambodia and Iraq healthcare workers were trained to be ‘paramedics’.  They then trained 2 800 community members. In the first two years of the project the community members managed approximately 800 patients and the mortality rate from trauma dropped from 28.7% to 9.4%.

EFAR as a strategy to enhance the capacity of emergency care systems are a feasible solution in low-resource settings.  In fact is appears to be more feasible than copying ‘international practice’ from well-developed systems. However EFAR is a bridging strategy whilst the formal emergency system is maturing, it is not a replacement strategy.  It is a cost-effective and easily implemented method to establishing out-of-hospital capacity.


Jamison, D. et al (editors) (2006) Disease control priorities in developing countries.  NCBI bookshelf

EFAR website:

Husum H, Gilbert M, Wisborg T.  Training pre-hospital trauma care in low-income countries: the ‘Village University’ experience.  Med Teach 2003: 25: 142-148

Sun JH, et al.  A strategy to implement and support pre-hospital emergency medical systems in developing resource-constrained areas of South Africa.  Injury (2012)

Wisborg T, Murad M, Edvardsen O, Husum H.  Prehospital trauma system in a low-income country system maturation and adaption during 8 years.  J Trauma 2008: 64 (5)1324-1348

And it is limited to low resource settings anymore.  Scotland are rolling out a system