Transcript: David Damberger on Learning from Failure at TEDxYYC

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.


If we look to the public sector, it doesn’t adapt and change quite as fast as the private sector, but, at the end of the day, if the elected government does not meet the needs of its constituents, they have a chance to vote them out of power, therefore holding them accountable. But if we look at the development sector, and if they don’t serve the needs of their beneficiaries — and they’re not just NGOs, they’re governments and they are businesses as well — the beneficiaries have no power to vote them out or to fire them. The people who have that power are the donors.


And when you look at the system, you start to see some of the challenges. Development sector that focuses more on pleasing the donors, and making them happy, and communicating to them, as opposed to understanding the needs of the beneficiaries. Because of that systematic challenge is very slow to innovate, there’s very little change, and you get exactly the same project built ten years later that fails in exactly the same way.


So what we do about this? First answer is easy, we invest in the private and the public sectors in the developing world. They are inherently structurally built to be more sustainable and to allow beneficiaries to hold them accountable. However, 70% of people in sub-Saharan Africa still make less than 2 dollars a day, are still in poverty. And a lot of that reason is because the private and the public sector is not serving them appropriately. So we do need to invest in businesses in Africa, in governments in Africa, but it’s still going to take a long time for the problems to be fixed. Therefore it leaves us with the one option and we need to work with this system. Therefore we have to fix it, we need to make it more accountable, more creative, and more transparent. We need to start innovating, coming up with really neat ideas, ideas like giving beneficiaries a chance to rate their project using their mobile phones, that donors and NGOs can understand. Or moving our donors closer to our beneficiaries. Currently, only 20% of the Canadian international development agencies’ African staff are based in Africa.

Ideas like funding development sectors, like VCs Fund businesses. What would it be like if a donor funded ten projects and expected four of them to do OK, one of them to do fantastic, and five of them to fail? And not all of the solutions need to be that complex. Engineers Without Borders is working out on one that’s actually quite simple, it’s admitting failure.


My first project with Engineers Without Borders was in India, I worked with a bunch of schools. Poor of the poorest of schools in India, with the untouchable cast. This is Beni, she was a girl who was at one of these schools and she and her classmates had to spend from two to three hours a day walking and collecting water to bring it back to the school so that they could have fresh water to drink, and for cooking, and for going to the bathroom.


My job as an Engineers Without Borders was to help solve this problem. And so I worked with the communities and they came up with these rain water harvesting solutions to collect water from the rooftops during the monsoons, bring them through gutters, filter them and store them for the dry season. I worked there for a number of months and by the time I left, we had the project funded and it was being implemented.


I returned back home to Canada almost a hero. My friends and family were like, “Wow, it’s fantastic! You gave up your job in the oil and gas sector to go volunteer in India, that’s really inspiring.”


A year later I contacted my NGO to see how everything was going with the rain water harvesting systems. And they told me that not a single one was still operating. The reason was because a lot of them had been built, but some of them had broken down because there is no maintenance schedule put in place. I’ve made the exact same mistake that I criticized earlier.

When I thought about my friends and family back home who thought I was such a hero I felt like an impostor. I thought of Beni, I didn’t help her at all. So admitting failure is actually quite hard and I didn’t tell many people about this, and one of the only things that helped me feel better about this — and is a bit of shame to say this — was that I started to learn that other people in Engineers Without Borders had failed too. But Engineers Without Borders have this culture of embracing failure openly, and letting us talk about it, and it was only through a bunch of us talking about failure that we really got to see we are making a lot of mistakes and we got to see we are making the same mistakes and we can actually learn from these mistakes. And we started to innovate and we started to change.

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By Pangambam S

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