Transcript: David Damberger on Learning from Failure at TEDxYYC

David Damberger is the founder of Engineers Without Borders Calgary (EWB). Below is the full transcript of David’s TEDx Talk titled ‘Learning from Failure’ at TEDxYYC conference.

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David Damberger – Engineer, Social Entrepreneur

Meet Inook. He is a pretty happy guy. And I’d be pretty happy too if this was the first time that my community had just gained access to fresh water. Inook is from the country of Malawi, the small sliver of a country in Southern Africa, known as the warm heart of Africa.

Over the past 10 years, five million more people like Inook in Malawi have gained access to fresh water. But what’s unfortunate is that this picture is a lie. I’ll come back to that in a second.

10 years ago, two Waterloo engineers sparked a movement across Canada, Engineers Without Borders.” This movement was based on the concept that it was completely unacceptable that 5 million people in Malawi did not have access to fresh water, when us, engineers back in Canada were working on problems such as making a photocopier increase its speed from 149 pages a minute to 151 pages per minute. We needed to work on problems that mattered.

I was fortunate that I founded the Calgary chapter here, and I got to be the first director of overseas programs for Engineers Without Borders in Africa, where I worked for 4 years, and I got to work with hundreds of businesses, non-government organizations, governments, all working in this field of development. And it was really fantastic working for Engineers Without Borders because even though we worked on hundred-million-dollar projects we had this philosophy that if we were really going to understand the problems in local Africa, we needed to live like local Africans.

So as a lot of ex-patriots would spend most of the time in the capital cities and boardrooms, we’d spend our time in villages learning local languages, traveling on public transports. And what this allowed us to do was to get a really, really deep understanding of what was going on at the field level, And combined with this experience — and hundreds of other Engineers Without Borders experiences — we got a really interesting perspective of what’s going on in this aid industry.

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The aid industry has got a lot of attention lately, a lot of economists have become authors and have written about it and there’s a lot of controversy about its effectiveness, some even asking the question like, “Has aid failed?” It’s a very interesting question.

Now, I am confident to say on behalf of Engineers Without Borders staff members that failed or not, we definitely feel that the aid system is broken. And when I say broken I am not talking about what the media usually talks about. It’s not about corrupt dictators or about corruption, — those issues still happen in Africa but they are much more the minority than they are the mainstream today. So I am talking about aid being broken in democratically elected, stable governments with no civil unrest, countries like Ghana, Malawi, and Zambia.

So I’ll talk about Malawi. The World Bank has stated that 80% of the people in Malawi have access to fresh water sources. So one of our staff members in Malawi, this is Owen, was visiting one of those water points. It was a gravity-fed system that was commissioned by the Canadian government and finished about a year and a half ago. A gravity fed system is basically a bunch of pipes that pipe water down from an elevated region, down into a number of communities where there’s a bunch of taps and people can access that water. He was going around turning on those taps and some of them weren’t working, so he asked the community, “How many of these aren’t working?” and they said, “Out of a 113, 81.” 81? What’s the problem? What’s going on? He found out that a lot of the pipes had sprung leaks and had broken down.

All right, not a big deal, pipes break down everywhere. But the problem with this project was that even though the infrastructure was built there was no thinking about who is going to maintain the system. And some people really took initiative and tried to fix the pipes themselves but there was a lack of affordable spare parts available. This situation is typical.

This is a graphic showing one area of Malawi, I think it’s an urban area, where the green dots are functional water points, yellow are the ones that are working but breaking down, and red are not functional. Hardly 80% and actually, Engineers Without Borders has done some work and found out that even of those 80% coverage of water points, 40% are not working.

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See, this issue is a lot of donors and projects end up on focusing on the hardware side of the issue and not really realizing the importance of the software side of things. At first it’s like “Wow, software!” of course you have to do maintenance, but when you think about people donating into charities, it makes you feel a lot better if you know that your money went to something tangible, something like a well, something like a school, something like giving a family a goat. It’s not as sexy and easy to tell your friends about how you helped fund a water committee or paid for teacher salaries.

So when I say that this picture of Inook is a lie, it’s not a lie when the picture is taken, it only becomes a lie, a year or two afterwards. When looking at this picture one of my great colleagues said, “Everything people see from Africa doesn’t matter. And everything that matters from Africa, people don’t get to see.” And this problem goes a lot further than just broken down water points.

See, Owen, after seeing this water point, discovered not more than 30 feet away: “Hey there’s another set of taps that look really broken down too but they are not attached to the system.” And he asked the community, “What of that? What’s that?” They said: “Oh, that’s the American government gravity-fed water system.” It was built over ten years ago.

He said, “What happened to that?”

“Oh, it also broke down about a year and a half later.”

How is it that a project that failed ten years ago was rebuilt almost the same technology and process and had exactly the same failures ten years later? I recently joined a startup company that sells goods online, that uses a lot of Africa fair trade goods sort of the ethical Ebay or Amazon. And what we’ve learned, as being a private sector startup is that if we don’t serve our customers and we don’t provide them the product that they need, they won’t buy it. And if we don’t innovate, change and adapt to their needs, we go out of business. So they have a power to hold us accountable.