Discussion: View Thread

  • 1.  Best practices for working in developing areas

    Posted 03-07-2017 12:52 PM

    I have had the opportunity to work on several water projects in many developing areas.  One of the problems that I have frequently seen are the results of well-intentioned, but misguided initiatives to help individual communities improve their drinking water supply.  Sometimes our colleagues’ enthusiasm and desire to make concrete progress on a project, results in damaged relationships with the community, even inappropriate or dangerous water supplies.  Do folks have suggestions about how to communicate best practices in terms of effectiveness and sustainability to members of our community who have a genuine desire to help others but maybe don’t have experience or background in working in developing areas?

    Andrew Elmore Ph.D., P.E., F.EWRI, F.ASCE
    Lake Havasu City AZ


  • 2.  RE: Best practices for working in developing areas

    Posted 03-08-2017 09:36 AM
    I feel like we engineers are more receptive to published research than anecdotes, so sharing analyses on sustainability might be a good starting point to convincing engineers of the need for implementing BMPs. I've skimmed over this one and I think it raises some good points: http://www.dphu.org/uploads/attachements/books/books_4482_0.pdf
    I've had a little exposure to development work and the experience of being on the ground was, in itself, a huge lesson. I think there's a lot to be gained by speaking to others who have done development work before. If possible, going on a "fact-finding" trip to meet with possible community partners before the actual project trip would be really helpful.
    The biggest thing is convincing engineers to be humble, acknowledge that they don't have all the answers (if getting safe drinking water was as easy as you imagine, wouldn't it have already happened?), and above all to listen. I think most people who want to help out will be receptive to this.

    Hunter Douglas M.Eng, EIT, S.M.ASCE

  • 3.  RE: Best practices for working in developing areas

    Posted 03-08-2017 09:36 AM

    I spent a lot of time working on development projects in College, including for my Master's, and I think it's critical to be concerned about the communicative aspect of development. Often for us engineers the easy part is choosing the preferred technology and, arguably, the installation. The reason so many projects fail is that we tend to misjudge/forget/ignore the cultural, religious, and social effects that the technology will have on a community, and how the community will interact with the technology.

    The best practices to create successful projects in the developing world is to actively, not passively, incorporate the social sciences into our development groups, i.e. practice transdisciplinary international development. Incorporating people in your development team who are trained in developmental anthropology or people who are experts in the focus community to act as cultural "sherpas" can better see the project from a societal perspective. For a comprehensive review of how the social science can and should be incorporated into developmental engineering projects, I highly recommend Developmental Anthropology: Encounters in the Real World by Riall Nolan, 2002.

    But as for tips to keep in mind while developing your project, here are a few questions you can ask yourself (in no specific order):

    1. Have we focused enough on the knowledge transfer portion? We can teach people with a presentation, but a project will not be successful 5 years later if members of the community cannot operate the system after you leave.

    2. Is the technology repairable? Can the parts for repair be locally sourced, or at least, available to the community? We all know that everything breaks some time, so it's important to know how the technology will be repaired.

    3. Is the technology appropriate? If a community does not get power regularly, then a pump that depends on a power grid will not work. That being said, low-tech isn't always the best option; for example, nearly everyone in Africa owns a cell phone, but access to a computer may be difficult.

    4. What aspects of this culture may impact our project? For example: Can only women collect water? Is the location we want to install the latrines considered holy ground? Is the community superstitious, and refuse to leave their homes at dusk for fear of being abducted by witches? Cultural challenges may seem arbitrary or ridiculous to us, but refusing to account for them all but dooms a project for failure.

    5. Do we have a follow-up system in place? Grants only last around a year, and USAID funds on a 2 year cycle, but international development requires years of contact and follow up. This is the challenge of a project being considered successful if it is installed and operates correctly, or if it actually operates for 5, 10, 20+ years.

    These are just a couple ideas of the top of my head. The moral of the story is that international development is hard, and it's good to be aware of the cultural aspects. The best thing you can do is communicate often and extensively with the community you are working in.

    Michael Sheehan EI, A.M.ASCE
    Project Engineer
    Bowser-Morner, Inc.
    Dayton OH
    (937)236-8805 EXT 310

  • 4.  RE: Best practices for working in developing areas

    Posted 03-08-2017 09:37 AM
    I have spent many years involved in various international service learning projects with students. The key element in any such effort, from water projects to economic development projects, is to ensure community buy-in to the project BEFORE the project is initiated. The first question should always be "What can we do to help you the most?" For example, I was involved with an EWB project in Peru where the student group (mechanical engineering and electrical engineering students, primarily) was planning to design a new power generation system for a small community that had lost power due to flood nearly 30 years earlier. When they got there, however, the people said something along the lines of "It has been 30 years since we have had power; another year or two is really not going to matter a lot. We are constantly getting sick from the water, however; can you do something to fix the water for us?" Being engineering students they, of course, said "Sure. No problem." without having any idea what that would entail. It was at that point that I was asked to help due to a connection with their local contact that I had in a different context, even though I was teaching at a different school.

    Later, I did a sabbatical in that community to assist with economic development planning. Over a four week period we held three public meetings to get input from the community regarding their future needs and desires. The economic development plan changed drastically from the conceptual outline we provided as a basis for initial discussions to the final product the community selected, and implemented, at the end.

    A final example involves a bridge project in Nicaragua. In this case we were asked by the community to develop a suitable bridge design for a specific location along the southern end of the west coast of the country near the town of San Juan del Sur. Recognizing the cultural differences between the USA and other nations, our first question, after ascertaining the required engineering and structural needs, was "Is there anything that needs to pass under the bridge, besides the river, at any time of the year - such as cattle, people, even spirits, and that we need to provide clearance or space for?" This recognition of cultural differences is the second key element in successful project planning. Many large projects, even those involving experienced professionals who should have known better, have been stymied and failed because cultural differences were not recognized and the local people were embarrassed to tell the designers about them.

    We need to ask, not assume, if we are going to be successful in these situations.

    Francis Hopcroft P.E.,M. ASCE
    Professor (Retired)
    Wentworth Institute of Technology
    Boston, MA

  • 5.  RE: Best practices for working in developing areas

    Posted 03-08-2017 05:54 PM
    Dear Hunter, Michael, Kathy, Samson  and Francis,
      Thank you for your thoughtful responses.  I appreciate all of your inputs, and I think that all of the information and links that you have posted is really helpful.  The guiding principal that we have followed in our projects is that we 1) strive to act fraternally, not paternally (which involves long-term systemic partnering with local communities, peer institutions, and NGOs), 2) apply the same best practices abroad that we would apply at home, 3) pursue publication of our work in peer-reviewed journals (or other sources of information that engineers commonly identify as reliable for design purposes).
      It is my experience that there is still a lot of outreach to be done to engage our students and members of our professional community with regards to effectively managing their very admirable altruistic desires in terms of applying best engineering practices.

    Andrew Elmore Ph.D., P.E., F.EWRI, F.ASCE
    Lake Havasu City AZ
    (573) 341-6784

  • 6.  RE: Best practices for working in developing areas

    Posted 03-09-2017 10:16 AM
    Hello! Interesting discussion and it looks like a helpful paper.  I just wanted to add that Engineers Without Borders USA, http://www.ewb-usa.org/our-story/about-us/, which I recently joined, seems to have moved the ball forward in this area. They have developed a systematic approach to guide student chapters in the steps of project implementation, based on principles such as those discussed in this thread, and they track, measure and publish information about how sustainable their projects are over time.  All the best to my fellow engineers working in this important area!

    Robert Weil P.E., S.M.ASCE
    Manhattan KS