Community development needs to be sustainable for the community and its environment.

The remote location of Paama island in Vanuatu has a long-standing connection with Dunedin; volunteers visit periodically for various community development projects. This connection resulted in an invitation to Senior Lecturers Michael Mullens (Engineering) and Cynthia Mullens (Nursing) to establish outreach opportunities for Otago Polytechnic learners. This aligned with their research focus on community health and development.

Effective and safe water systems are imperative for the promotion of health, the prevention of disease and the understanding of disease management within communities. However advancing projects is never as simple as implementing a solution and then walking away. Multiple factors at play affect the long-term outcome from community development initiatives. Projects need to be environmentally sustainable, culturally appropriate, and empower the local community by transferring knowledge and skills. Michael and Cynthia developed a programme that would offer second year Engineering students the opportunity to participate in water and sanitation projects on Paama.

The students were able to use their academic knowledge and skills to provide real-world solutions under challenging conditions, linking theory with practice. Surveys and interviews conducted after the trip allowed Cynthia and Michael to measure the impact this opportunity had on learners as well as for the local community. Many student participants spoke of being able to address challenging situations within a safe and constructive space through trial and error. They developed comprehensive understanding of the challenges involved in designing and implementing sustainable projects in resource-poor environments. The opportunity has also opened up possible career paths in community development and in water and sanitation of which they had previously been unaware.

March 2020