EWB and Changing Perceptions of Development

A special post for International Development Week happening at the Global Lounge February 7-11th.

Duncan McNicholl graduated from Civil Engineering in 2009, and currently works in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders on their Water and Sanitation team and blog at www.waterwellness.ca

I started being involved in international development knowing little more than that I wanted to help. Growing up as a privileged Westerner on Vancouver’s west side, I had only a dim conception of the issues that the greater world was facing, but what little I knew made me wonder if I could contribute my effort and education towards tackling some of the greater challenges out there. Something that felt more significant than designing a new overpass.

The question was: how? I showed up to my first Engineers Without Borders meeting expecting to design something and ship it overseas. Looking back, it seems almost comical that I thought such an approach would be effective, but I really had no idea at the time. I was studying to be an engineer and expected to be heavily involved in the design process, possibly making pumps or designing infrastructure. My education was grooming me for technical skills, so I sought technical problems.

I learned fairly quickly through EWB that I wasn’t the first to think this way. The history of development is riddled with technological solutions to what are often non-technical problems. These “solutions” are almost invariably failures. Something that works in one place may be a complete disaster in another context, which gives rise to the discussion of appropriate technology. How can the design process be adapted to make development work?

In March of 2010 I came to work for EWB in Malawi full-time as part of their Water and Sanitation team. Although my thinking had evolved a lot from my early days, there really is no substitute for practical field experience. Above all, my time here has taught me just how little we really can know about a concept such as development. The stats are familiar: decades of work, untold billions of dollars in investment, dozens of paradigm shifts in approaches, all culminating in wholly unimpressive results. Why aren’t we seeing significant change? It’s not that there aren’t already a lot of smart people thinking about the issues, it’s that the challenges can’t be solved using the conventional approach of design and implement. There is too much uncertainty, which requires a humility that most project planning cannot incorporate.

In light of this, I’ve come to see development as a co-evolutionary process. No one has all the answers and, even if they did, there is no one in the driver’s seat to implement the ideas. NGOs, though prevalent throughout the Global South, are transient and not really part of long-term development. Development is the product of people interacting – in communities, companies, governments, etc. – to build systems that enable people to live better lives. It is what happens when everyday interactions get built up. Ideas are essential, but so are things like trust, which cannot be forced or fabricated. It must grow naturally.

As a foreign development worker, I now see our work as contributing essentially two things:

  1. Creating new spaces for dialogue: We can generate ideas and hold discussions with institutions and communities who might not otherwise have space for reflection and innovation. This can lead to new opportunities that might not emerge organically.
  1. Buying down the risk of innovating: We can support people or organizations who are willing to experiment with new innovations by providing technical support, facilitation, and resources.

Although this is a gross oversimplification of the complexities and nuances of the actual work on the ground, I do believe these two points allow us to work within the complex environment I described earlier. It is not about us coming up with the answers, but rather being part of a process that allows solutions to emerge. It is a constant practice of learning, adapting, and learning again. It is endlessly challenging, but a vast improvement over designing things and shipping them overseas.

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