Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Integrated Design vs. the Constant Crisis

Back home I worked (and come April will continue to work) for a small mechanical engineering firm specializing in energy efficient design. Our guiding philosophy was the concept of integrated design, which means coordinating our work with the architect at every phase of design. It requires a lot of talking, coordinating, and patience because the process is iterative. For example, if I increase the size of an air cooling unit, I need to inform the structural engineer (to make sure the ceiling beams are strong enough) and the electrical engineer, who needs to know about the increased power demand. Changes can therefore have cascading, unpredicted effects. The process is hard, but the benefit is great - a well functioning, energy efficient building. And by eliminating potential conflicts before construction, it should also reduce the building's cost.

The alternative, traditional design process is top-down and sequential. The architect creates his building, then passes the plans on to the structural engineer. He then passes his plans to the mechanical engineer, and so forth. The process is simpler but doesn't allow for changes very well. Mistakes are also more likely to go unnoticed.

What does this have to do with water, Africa or development? I think it points to the problem of crisis-driven management, which seems to be endemic here. With few resources, there are a thousand fires to fight at once, to the detriment of long-term planning. What resources are available are short-lived and dedicated to specific purposes, which usually have more to do with the donor's priorities than the recipient's. Crisis-driven management precludes the forethought inherent in integrated design, resulting in a confused decision-making process. Many of the buildings and campuses I've seen in Uganda and DR Congo are the result - ad-hoc and confused places. Places that cannot use their limited resources efficiently because they are squandered fighting real (and imaginary) crises.

The solution is the implementation of "soft" improvements, such as a reliable revenue stream, master-planning, and improved personnel management. Only then can the wonderful physical donations (such as buildings and medical equipment) be put to full use. Until then they sit under-utilized, waiting to be integrated into the whole.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Developing Local Talent

There seems to be a Catch-22 in the development world: creating great programs often requires bringing in outside talent. But the very act of using outsiders inhibits the central process one is trying to nurture, namely the ability of a country to sustainably raise living standards. Outsiders take up jobs that might otherwise go to a local, thereby preventing current seekers from obtaining the position. They also inhibit investment in the education necessary to create the skills needed for the position.

So why are outsiders needed in the first place? An organization might have a few reasons for doing so. Firstly, the skills needed just might not be available in-country. One often will find this true in management positions or in positions requiring a very narrow skill-set. Secondly, using outsiders might be built into the way the organization functions. Some country-specific funding organizations (such as USAID, CIDA or KFW) require the organizations to which they’re contributing to place nationals in internship or paid positions.

But there’s another reason an organization might prefer outsiders. Frankly, it’s just easier to “get things done” when everyone in the organization understands each other, in all the small cultural details. Communication can break down in surprising ways when people think they understand one another but actually have no idea what’s going on. But this is the easy and ultimately self-defeating path for an organization to take. Most organizations focused on development should be focusing on creating skills that translate into high-value jobs, thereby creating the talent to let locals determine their own path.

Now for a confession – I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve worked as a volunteer in Uganda. The work I do does require some relatively advanced skills, but not skills completely unknown in Uganda. There are engineers here that could be doing the work I am doing. But as I described above, I work with an organization that places a large number of young people as interns. The funding has a two-fold purpose: to increase living standards in sub-Saharan Africa, but also to develop talent amongst its own nationals. There’s some self-interest tied to the altruism.

As a relative novice to the development world when I arrived in Uganda 10 months ago, I’ve gained invaluable experience during my time here. Experience that will inform a lifetime of decision-making. I’ve also contributed much to work here that might otherwise have been difficult to finish. But ultimately, a country will show the mark of progress when people like myself become redundant.