Tag archives: international development

Why I’m not the right person to solve your problems: an engineer in sanitation

I sat in a meeting recently about sanitation prototypes that are being tested in the “real world” – the informal settlements and rural households that they have been designed for, rather than the labs where they were created. As with any early stage testing, the prototypes have problems and it was these problems and the potential solutions that were under discussion at the meeting.

While listening to these challenges, it hit me. As an engineer, I am not the right person to solve sanitation problems. Of course, there are some technical problems with the prototypes – materials that foul in a different way than expected causing downstream problems, control sequences that need adapting to deal with different circumstances – but it is the non-technical challenges that really interested me. Some are focused on the views of individuals, like toilet users being unhappy with human excreta being stored in close proximity to their perched backside; some are linked to the wider community, like jealousy and distrust of the families who have been selected to trial new toilets; some are political, like the wrangling between settlement committees and councillors affiliated to different political parties; and some are linked to the wider economic situation of the area, like the theft and sale of copper wire used for earthing electrical connections. Some of these problems do have a technical aspect and technology may play a part in the solutions but, for the most part, sanitation is a social issue.

So what’s an engineer to do?

First, as an engineer I have to acknowledge that I don’t have all the pieces to complete this jigsaw puzzle.

Next, I have to make sure I am working with the people who can add in the puzzle pieces that I don’t have. The advantage of the prototype testing discussed in this meeting is that there are a wide range of people involved – academics with social science and engineering backgrounds, community development specialists who work closely with the communities where prototypes are being tested, and municipal representatives who can contribute valuable knowledge on the economic and political intricacies of the sanitation issues in these communities. Of course, having those people in the room is not enough in itself, which brings me to…

I have to listen to what they say and understand when I have reached the limits of my own expertise. That is not to say that my views are useless here. However, the solution to every problem is not technical. My softer engineering skills still offer a huge amount of value – a logical approach to problem-solving, an ability to work within a team, and written and spoken communication of complex ideas.

There are several young engineers involved in this testing and I hope that the experience of working with a diverse team will help them to recognise the value of inter-disciplinary collaboration when it comes to overcoming challenges in sanitation. Sanitation is a complex issue and engineers cannot solve these problems alone.

Trump vs Women Round 1: The “A” bomb

One of President Trump’s first acts in the White House was to reinstate the Mexico City Policy, or “the global gag rule”.  The policy is reinstated and revoked every time the White House changes from Democrat to Republican and back.  That’s because the subject of the policy, abortion, is a highly politicised topic in America.

The policy means that NGOs that receive US foreign aid funding are not allowed to provide or promote abortions.  It was first instated by Reagan in 1984 and it essentially exports the US debate on abortion.  Sadly, that has dramatic negative effects on the health of women the world over.  NGOs that provide family planning services now have a choice to make.  Either they need to drop abortions from the suite of family planning options that they discuss, or they lose all US foreign aid funding.  It’s important to note two things:
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Development research: Access all areas?

Alexandra Elbakyan is in hiding, possibly in Russia. Elsevier, the publishing giant, have filed a legal case against her for sharing millions of academic journal papers on the internet. Her actions are a protest against the paywalls that so many scholarly articles are hidden behind.

If you work in a research environment, these paywalls are all too common in your daily work. When looking for journal articles about international development sanitation earlier this week, I was dismayed to discover that the vast majority were locked away behind pay walls. Having working in research for a number of years, I am familiar with the frustration of finding what looks from the abstract like it might be exactly the paper you have been searching for, only to discover that to access the full text you will need to fork out an extortionate sum because it is published in a journal that your institution does not have a subscription for.
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