Common question but no easy answer

I got asked this question pretty much when I first started the blog, and have been procrastinating answering it since then.

I have a question slash devil’s advocate poke (I have a feeling this will be an easy one and is probably one of the most common things you get asked:))… Please explain why *engineers without borders* from, for example, Canada, are facilitating community development in Africa? Why not locals?

The simple answer: We don’t. The closest we typically do is facilitating the facilitation of community development. My guess is that you asked this question because you don’t buy in to the idea of Westerners coming to Africa to save communities from the poverty that inflicts them, that we must simply unshackle the poor (by providing schools, access to credit – insert your intervention of choice!) and things will work out.

To me, there’s something that just doesn’t feel quite right about that idea. Maybe it’s that hint of paternalism, or the knowledge that that has been tried (and tried and tried and tried) to disappointing effect. Digging wells, building schools, and sending used clothes are all pretty easy to do. Running a workshop on women empowerment, offering micro-credit, subsidizing farmer inputs – other more sophisticated approaches to community development – are also relatively easy to do (though really freaking hard to get right). Point is if you have money, you can give it out, but again, this has been tried and tried and tried – to disappointing effect.

This is a topic that has been pretty beaten to death. I want to instead focus on what EWB tries to do differently. My view is that if you boiled our work down you’d be left with one word: systems. People talk a lot about how development is “complex”, how “simple solutions” are not effective.

The fact that is that these complex systems have an enormous amount invested in them. An army of very smart people have invested an immeasurable amount of time and passion. There are countless projects and organizations that interact, with relationships and shared history. Some things are working, some things aren’t. This system has a lot of inertia, with a lot of conflicting priorities and perspectives, and “progress” is inherently ambiguous. Certainly people recognize that there’s room for a lot of improvement, but when you start to look at this entire system, what positive change actually looks like becomes a lot less clear.

A colleague, Ben Best, compares working in the development sector to working in Silicon Valley on tech startups. He states: “By definition entrepreneurs are working in an ambiguous environment where not only is the solution unknown, but the problem (or at least how important that problem is) is unknown as well”. Identifying a problem and pushing for a change requires first a very strong understanding of the current state of being, a healthy dose of creativity, intuition, and probably a lot of failures. This is the approach that EWB has committed to taking – ignoring the easy solutions, and committing to the exploration and time required to execute on ideas for change to this system. To explain what this actually looks like, I think the best way is to take a quick step back and highlight what G&RI does.

We want to facilitate effective planning and decision making at the District level. This is going to lead to District staff providing services more efficiently and equitably to constituents – this is our way of facilitating the facilitation of community development. We’ve identified three key barriers to effective and evidence-based decisions: Lack of staff capacity, poor processes and incentives for this to actually take place, and ineffective planning tools. These barriers are embedded in a complex system, and to try to tackle it holistically, we work at the District level, the Regional level, the National, and are exploring ways to work at the community level. By understanding this system from all of these angles, we’re trying to identify the key problems, and from there, identify and execute on potential positive changes. I know that this is still pretty high-level and abstract, but that’s the nature of it.

In terms of what we’re actually trying to do, one of the problems we’ve identified is a lack of data management systems and associated capacity at the District Level. People get a lot of reports from Departments and the field, but don’t have any good way of managing all this data, much less basing a decision off it. Working with Districts, we’re co-developing data systems and supporting evidence-based decision-making processes. Throughout this process, we’re learning a lot about the challenges that District Officers face, some of which are really beyond their control. We share this learning through our networks at the National level, to try to get big development partners and the higher levels of government to make demands and set policies that are going to support (and not detract) from the work of the District-level staff – to affect the system such that these three barriers are pushed out.

G&RI is a small team, but we have big expectations and a lot of momentum. To me, engaging these problems on the scale that we are, from community to National government, is freaking exciting. As to why it’s us working on this and not locals – I think some of the work we do is only possible because we’re not locals.  We’re able to act as a sounding board or instigator of new ideas. More importantly, we walk this tight-rope of being both within this system by working directly with partners, but outside the system in that we are not accountable to a funding organization or a government. This gives us an ability to objectively communicate perspectives and ideas that is very valuable but exceedingly difficult for someone within the system to do.

Does this all make sense? I did my best to articulate our work in a way that makes some amount of sense – something we’re notoriously bad at – and please fire any questions below.

MOREOVER, if any of this sounds interesting, you should get in touch with me. We’re looking for people to join our team, either for a four-month sabbatical from your job or an extended placement. If you even once found yourself thinking – “damn. That’s kinda cool.”,  or have ever thought going overseas would be up your alley – contact me! Engineers, non-engineers, development expert, new to development… you should fire me an email and we’ll chat.

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3 Responses to Common question but no easy answer

  1. Kristina says:

    This type of question always makes me think about the distinction inherently made by the question that “rich” people are helping “poor” people. The implication is to be asking what right the privileged group has to tell the other what to do about their problem. But I think we so often overlook a basic human imperative, which is to make life better for all. I don’t think of development work as an “us” helping “them” situation, but as everyone working together towards a better world for everyone. We need to be aware and steer clear of any projects or ideas that lead to helping attitudes instead of working together attitudes, but I think the overall process of development should be re-framed to look at poverty issues as a problem that the world faces and has to fix. Together.

  2. Pingback: Development Digest – 04/03/11 « What am I doing here?

  3. Belinda says:

    Now when people ask me this type of question, I have something to refer them to! You articulated a solid explanation really well. We’re all thinking of you from Boston as we think about “game-changing” in water access. xoxo

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