On the 9th December I returned from what felt like another world. In fact, it was rural north west Nicaragua where I had been living and working for 3 months. At the beginning of 2016 I had graduated and was approaching the end of my one-year contract and although I had managed to find the fabled post-graduation job I did not know what the future held. News was often grim throughout the world and the problem of climate change was an ever present worry. This uncertainty and desire to do something, anything, to create positive change in the world prompted me to apply to the UK government’s international development programme for young people-ICS or International Citizen’s Service. I was allocated to a sustainable development charity called Raleigh International who assessed and then trained me to carry out work on a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme in Nicaragua, the largest country in Central America.
In the current times, international development programmes, like so much else, have become fodder for commercialisation. This is scary because it means that we cannot trust how organisations and charities will direct our money or our good intentions. I am so grateful that with my project this was far from the case and that ICS is doing such great work to both contribute to international development and educate and strengthen the skills of young people in the UK. Part of the reason it works so well is that Raleigh International and ICS actively collaborate with local organisations and governments so that local people are empowered and development comes from within. This is exemplified by the fact that teams are comprised of not only UK volunteers, but volunteers from Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The local volunteers in my team were invaluable to us, helping us integrate within the community and learn the language and culture. It is striking that though the majority of the volunteers did not at first share a common language, by the end of the project we had developed communication on levels that surpassed language skills and could be sustained on a few common words.
ICS is also effective because volunteers both live and work with local people in the community. I was placed in San Marcos Arriba in the region of Muy Muy. This small community of 300 people was at the top of mountain at the end of a road only drivable by the sturdiest of vehicles. We were up among the clouds and the only electricity and running water we had access to were the thunderstorms and torrential downpours of Nicaragua’s rainy season. The immediacy of life for local people was something that we had to learn quickly. Yet, these same people were also a hosts and surrogate families who housed and cared for us during our work. And when we left the sense of family was all too real.
The project was challenging and difficult in many ways. I had to learn to work and grow with a diverse group of people, overcoming language and culture barriers. I had to find new confidence in my own skills to build professional relationships with people, deliver training and workshops and motivate and engage community participation. But ultimately the hardest thing was to leave it all behind – both the volunteers who were colleagues and had become friends and the community that had welcomed us with open arms. And the good parts of those 3 months are too numerous to count. Through ICS I have met and befriended people from hugely different backgrounds, I have learnt so much about myself and international development. I have learned another language. I have acquired skills in management, leadership, outreach, campaign and event planning, running meetings and delivering training sessions. I can also build water filters out of tyres.
Perhaps the most important thing I took from this was something that led me towards applying to ICS in the first place. Now is the time to make a change. Nicaragua is the country 3rd most affected by climate change in the world. In the UK the results of climate change are not yet tangible. Perhaps the greatest injustice is that climate change will most harm those who have contributed least to its occurrence. In my host community where we didn’t have electricity the huge energy use of the world’s population is causing drought and water scarcity and is only predicted to get worse. This is a tragedy in a country where farming is the principal occupation.
Action is needed and I cannot in good conscience wait until the tragedy is at my door. Strikingly the changes that could decrease our carbon footprint most drastically do not require us to shut off our energy provider and throw away our mobile phones. A change in diet creates the biggest single impact. It has become increasingly clear over the past few years that animal agriculture is the largest single cause of climate change with the main culprits being the commercial farming of cows for beef and dairy. This habit of indulging in cow products contributes more to our carbon footprint than driving a car and all other forms of motorised transportation. Walking everywhere for the rest of my life is not a happy prospect, in contrast giving up cow seems almost like I’ve got off lightly. Moving forward I hope to find more and more ways to cut waste out of my life and take responsibility for the energy I use and the way I spend my money. I also hope to be part of a movement that will take our planet back from the brink of disaster. Although the future seems filled with challenges through ICS I became part of a community preparing to face these challenges head on and through each individual we create ripples that eventually can change the face of the world.