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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

Engineers Without Borders is drastically different now, ten years later than what we thought engineers should be doing in development. We don’t build water points anymore. As a matter of fact, we don’t build anything other than spreadsheets. We now have this innovative marketing campaign “Sponsor an African spreadsheet,” because we understand that the problems are not hardware problems, it’s all about that software side of things. It’s a really hard concept to get across to people, people still want to fund wells and schools, but it’s really about the software side of things, and it’s a lot longer process to fund those things; and it’s not sexy, but it works.


So the next thing that happened is our staff members were really excited about sharing this failure internally but we still were not doing a good job of letting other people know, and some of our very courageous field staff were getting upset at the management because other projects were going to make the same failures and they weren’t learning. So they pushed our management staff — and we were nervous about it — about publishing our failures, but for the last three years, Engineers Without Borders has published an annual failure report citing our biggest failures.

At first I am asked, “How did your donors think?” and I think how would my donors feel if they knew that the money they’ve spent and saved up, and generously donated, had had no impact? And you know, that’s tough. Our donors felt that too. But once they started reading the failures, they understood the power of those lessons learned and realized it’s an injustice not to be sharing these.

Then we realized that not everyone reads reports so we built a website, This is for all organizations to come, and start admitting their failures, and to start having a discussion about failure. The concept is catching on. The Harvard Business Review just last month published their first review focused on failure. Two big companies lately have also dealt with failure. I’m talking to my friends in other sectors and they tell me, oh, it’s not just the development sector that has these challenges, and we got across a lot of other sectors, and two companies had lot of big failures lately, and what’s interesting about them is that one of them publicly admitted their failure and talked about what they’ve learned from it, what they’re going to do next time. The other one tried not to talk about it at all. I think it will be interesting looking forward to see which of those strategies works.

I’d like to ask people to, first of all, think about how does your organization think about and share failure. Maybe ask the person next to you because I think it can generate really interesting conversations.

And lastly, I’d like to turn back to this question that was asked, “Has aid failed?” I think I’ll say that, for me, the answer is yes, but only because it hasn’t failed enough.

Thank you.



By Pangambam S

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