A beginner’s guide to cleaning up a country in one day

2013-06-23 06:00

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It began the day when Rainer Nõlvak, an Estonian computer entrepreneur, got “seriously fed up’’ with the trash piling up in his country’s forests.

He took seven months off work to mobilise a countrywide clean-up that took place on May 3 2008. In the space of just five hours, some 50 000 Estonians collected 10 000 tons of garbage.

That was the start of Let’s Do It, now one of the world’s most ambitious volunteer efforts which helps organise one-day wars-on-waste in country after country.

In 2012, it launched a World Clean Up, which lasted six months, and involved 96 countries.

In a telephone interview, Nolvak, now 46, explained how it works.

How do you manage such a widespread operation?

We don’t manage a Let’s Do It event. Essentially, they are unmanageable.

That’s the best part of the movement. This way, you can’t manage it in the wrong way.

We are now in 101 countries; it is almost impossible to make the right decision for all those cultures without living there, or loving that country.

People would feel you are shallow.

I don’t think anyone can convince people in another country to do something that is about national pride.

What we’ve done is inspire people and help them where they need help. It almost always begins with one or two people whom we find mainly through friends.

Where do you go to get help?

We are notoriously bad at getting funding. We may have five people who get a salary in any one project, but we get help, depending on the country. In some countries, municipalities take care of logistics. Sometimes, it’s centralised; in others, it is decentralised.

You need tons of phone time, zillions of minutes of phone time to do it, the media stuff, the designing and printing. It is close to a military organisation.

I would bribe someone if they can help clean up the planet. We’ll work with non-democratic governments. The problem is everywhere.

What’s the formula for a successful Let’s Do It?

Essentially, it combines two things. You have to have a local team, so you find 5, 10, or 20 people who think alike, and who are willing to work within an organisation, because a whole-country clean-up requires a really complex organisation.

Second, do something. Don’t talk about it. I have seen teams who are slow to start, who write press releases etc.

But what defines people is real action, something where outsiders can see that you are taking real responsibility.

How does a country stay clean after it has been cleaned up?

What we are cleaning is not just the garbage but the waste inside the heads of people. It is utterly pointless to clean up if we don’t change people’s behaviour.

We are not targeting environmentally-sensitive people. We are successful only if indifferent people change their behaviour.

If you tell an everyday person, let’s go out and clean up, they’ll feel that this is for ‘green’ people, and their attitude will be ‘let them do it’.

In order to convince that person, you need to talk in the same language, and there is a way to do that. We have to show that we can make that person’s effort significant. It needs to be fun; it needs to have an effect.

One of the recent Let’s Do It clean-ups took place in Kosovo, one of the world’s newest, smallest and most divided countries, one still struggling with a legacy of war and suspicion. How does ‘Let’s Do It’ work in that environment?

It was a slow start in Kosovo because of the cultural background. It was not easy, but I admired how they went about it. You have to find the belief in your country that this is possible. That is the basic question over and over again.

People say oh, this can be done in Estonia or Slovenia, but not in Romania, Moldova or Kosovo. That is the first reaction, and it is very honest. I tell them it only becomes clear when you take the first small step, when you do something that shows you are serious.

The team in Kosovo was so confident and in the end, they had 100 000 people participating, Kosovars and Serbs.

That is the peculiar thing about our campaigns. If we don’t ask everyone, then nobody shows up. Country clean-ups are like an orchestra: it takes every instrument to make it happen.

Why do you do it?

This is my hobby, not an everyday job. I am organising because I hate clean-ups.

We are determined to get out of this business.

I think we have lost the ability to do selfless work together in the last 100 years.

This is the way things got done earlier. It is socially interesting. It is fun. It is something that makes people come together.

» Read more here.

» This story is part of a global initiative to find clever solutions to some of our planet’s most pressing problems.

The first global Impact Journalism Day, driven by Sparknews was yesterday and City Press is the project’s exclusive South African partner.

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