Giving a voice to the poor

May 08, 2009
Marc Jeuland
Doctoral student in environmental sciences and engineering (2004-Present)
Peace Corps volunteer, Mali, 2001-2004

Water has always intrigued Marc Jeuland. His senior project at Swarthmore College was the construction of a wetland system that fed into a campus creek. Undergraduates in environmental studies still use the sand-and-gravel system to conduct research on storm water run-off.

After receiving his degree in engineering, with a focus on the environment, Jeuland was eager to travel abroad. “My father was born in France,” he says, “so I had traveled there and elsewhere in Europe when I was growing up. But I really wanted a long-term experience in a developing country.”

Mali, in West Africa, was one of the few countries in which the Peace Corps was placing engineers, and as it happened, the match was nearly perfect for Jeuland.

“Many engineering students were working in areas where even basic water and sanitation infrastructure was absent,” he says. “But in Bamako, the capital city, I had the chance to work with sanitation systems that were already basically in place but facing significant constraints.

“I worked with a private company that managed solid and septic waste. The problem with the septic pumping service was that the vehicles that collected the waste dumped it in an environmentally inappropriate and unhygienic way — in an open field or on farmland. There was no disposal site where waste could be sent and could degrade in a controlled way over time.”

Two women in a neighborhood in Bamako had begun a company that managed public latrines and waste from household onsite disposal systems. Jeuland advised them on ways to set up a system of isolated, low-cost waste stabilization ponds so that sewage could decompose more hygienically than previously was the case.

“It wasn’t that unusual for women to run businesses like this in Bamako,” he says. “The women often are the ones who care about the community’s well-being and are willing to invest their time in it.”

Jeuland, working on the Swarthmore College project.

Jeuland, working on the Swarthmore College project.

In Mali, Jeuland confirmed that water management would be his career direction. He also learned that work in developing nations would be central to what he loves most about his job.

“I like the concept of low-cost natural treatment systems,” he says, ” — ones that don’t need excessive energy or mechanical parts but are a good ecological fit with the particular site.”

Jeuland extended his 24-month tour of service in Mali by an additional six months. While still there, he applied to what is now the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. He was drawn to a school in which engineering was paired with public health.

He also was attracted by the work of Dr. Dale Whittington, professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Jeuland credits his mentor with showing him how water and sanitation services can better be delivered to the poor.

“Under Dale’s direction, I’ve done household surveys about cholera in Mozambique. I’ve worked in Ethiopia and Egypt, on a project to manage water resources along the Nile that aims to promote development and fight poverty,” he says.

“Stated simply, the lack of sanitation makes people sick, and that’s something I want to change. UNC’s efforts in this area have made a profound impression on me. Dale’s work in household surveys is particularly inspiring because in desperately poor areas — especially where leadership is corrupt — the survey gives each person who participates a voice, allows each person to be counted in the results that are published or reported to policymakers.”

“Even the best democracies don’t often give a voice to the poor,” says Jeuland, “but the survey is a democratic tool — and it listens to what the people have to say.”

To learn more about the Sahel landscape and hear the stories of people who live there, visit the Syngenta Foundation website.

View more photographs of Marc Jeuland’s Peace Corps experience on Flickr.
See other videos featuring Marc Jeuland at YouTube.

Join our Peace Corps discussion on LinkedIn.


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