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Critical Review One: Re-engineering Development

March 9, 2017

By: Ledia Andrawes

As Dzombak and Kramer state in Development Engineering: A Critical Overview, development engineering is nothing new. Engineers have been involved in significant public and social good initiatives at the intersection of ‘international development’ for hundreds of years, long before U.S President Harry S. Truman’s inaugural speech in 1949 which called for making “our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas… Their economic life is primitive… Their poverty is a handicap and a threat… For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of these people.”

In the 70 years since Truman’s speech that’s often seen as setting the stage for the post World War II ‘development’ project, it’s been shown that technical know-how is not all that is required to alleviate poverty and suffering. Dzombak and Kramer nobly acknowledge this and the decades of well-intentioned but often misguided, futile, and sometimes even harmful efforts in this spirit—their arguments make a clear and obvious case for why engineers working at the intersection of social and public initiatives ought to zoom out and think in a more integrative way. As the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe used to say: “God is in the detail”—an age old idiom suggesting that details are important, not only in that thoroughness minimizes risk, but that spaces for creativity and opportunity also come from attention to the details. More recently however, the phrase: “The devil is in the detail” has emerged, suggesting that all solutions break down when examined too closely.

Alongside God and the devil, engineers tend to live in the details. Details are important, but narrowing in on one set of details and ignoring other sets is risky. As Dzombak and Kramer discuss in their article, a more appropriate approach to problem solving for social impact is one that integrates both the technical engineering detail with detail from other disciplines  such as sociology, anthropology, behavioural psychology, complexity theory, and management theory, to name a few. There is no doubt that there is a need for engineers to rethink the way they work and see themselves. But will this be enough to make an actual difference in the existing development paradigm? What is missing from this set of arguments is an acknowledgement of the need for a re-engineering of the development paradigm itself. Development engineers, along with their designer cousins, risk being caught up in the trap of claiming to do things differently, but being disabled by the actual mechanisms and incentives in place.

Accountability in development has slowly been inching further and further away from the people it claims to represent and in whose name large sums of money are raised (Wallace and Porter, 2013; Banks, Edwards and Hulme, 2015). Top-down relationships of power and control are antagonistic to longer, iterative, and human centred approaches for social change. In the existing paradigm, the person deciding what ‘development’ is and how it can be achieved in any given scenario is usually some kind of ‘foreign expert’ with some kind of technical speciality. By keeping the emphasis on technical solutions exported from ‘foreign experts,’ the new wave of development engineers risk perpetuating the same paradigm. Although there is a role for experts such as development engineers in this system, it is time to rethink their purpose. It is time to take a back seat in supporting rather than directing the social goals and needs of the people being affected in a given scenario.

The Problem with Development

The way that development has been pursued in the post-World War II era as top-down, ethnocentric, authoritarian and interventionist has already been criticised at length. In his 1995 book Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Arturo Escobar argues that “development” was an ideological export and apparatus of control equivalent to colonialism with its technocratic language and imposition of norms and value judgements. This led Escobar to conclude that development was “not only a problem to the extent that it failed; it was a problem even when it succeeded, because it so strongly set the terms for how people in poor countries could live” (Reid-Henry, 2012). The paternalistic tone and treatment towards the poor as passive, voiceless victims means they either cannot or should not play an active role in shaping their destiny. With terms like needy, powerless, vulnerable, illiterate, malnourished being thrown around, no wonder the system sees them as just poor, or just beneficiaries of something we have imagined for them. The inherent belief throughout the discourse that poverty is inevitable and unavoidable hides the real causes and tends to exclude the space to explore a re-engineering of development completely that could actually address the issues properly.

To most funders and practitioners in this space, development is still understood (and functions) as a system of some commonly applicable and generally “scalable” technical interventions intended to deliver some “badly needed” goods to a “target” population (Escobar 1995: 44). Despite the efforts of many who have tried to reform development rhetoric and practice, regrettably, this has not resulted in much notable gain over the years. As a designer who has been working at this intersection for some years, it pains me to admit that although thinking more empathically, contextually, and systematically about issues is what we attempt to do, it is rarely that we have the enabling conditions from funders and others to do this properly in reality. The emphasis placed on fulfilling material deprivation by funders and implementers—rather than an emphasis on social transformations in capabilities and capacities (Chang, 2011)—means that the development system has instead been perpetuating and reproducing the poverty and inequality it is claiming to be solving for.

Continuing to attempt to design and engineer new solutions in a dis-abling environment is not only frustrating as it limits potential impact, but it is also a naive take on the issues. Re-engineering how development is done and how we are all held accountable is what we really ought to invest our efforts in. From this angle, despite what Dzombak and Kramer claim, no technical innovation or knowledge sharing among elite, educated foreigners is going to address the actual problem. Development engineers and designers will continue to find themselves in the classic case of developing the right solutions for the wrong problem. Addressing the structural flaws in how the development system operates requires a radical re-engineering of mindset and incentives for all who operate in it and interact with it.

The Role of Designers and Engineers in the Development Paradigm

The challenge for us, as engineers and designers at the intersection of development, is to redefine our roles and re-inventing the system rather than tweak how we produce new products for production and consumption. Our roles need to shift towards creating the space in both discourse and practice for local agency to assert itself. We need to avoid being the proponents of what Escobar refers to as foreigners creating “a space in which only certain things could be said and even imagined” (1995: 39). We need to stop referring to impoverished communities as in need of our development, and instead create a model that values local people and traditions rooted in local identities to address their own problems. We can no longer see ourselves as the problem solver holding the answers.

This redefining ourselves requires us to direct our curiosity and wonder towards our own professional identities, and do so with a dose of humility. While Dzombak and Kramer laid out a compelling argument, they could go further still in calling on engineers and designers working at the intersection of development to think of themselves as transferring power: the power to define the problems and goals of people, and shifting that power out of the hands of foreign experts and into the hands of the people themselves. Now that adds up to a radical systemic change.

The Other Way Around: Re-Engineering Development

Development today still holds true to the many ideas and practices that have become the norm in post-World War II era, attempting to engineer particular changes in the so-called ‘Third World’. However, the focus on development aid as a legitimate response to poverty tends to draw attention away from the underlying political and structural causes of growing inequality. Although Dzombak and Kramer acknowledge that new technologies and products need to be designed with a human, contextual, and systemic understanding to maximize its sustainability, the authors fail to critically engage with the complicit role of engineers and designers in a broken system, and what that role has the potential to be. The kind of development we as designers and engineers should be subscribing to is not one of an altruistic or economic imperative, but rather, what Escobar (1995) refers to as a “structure-changing and systemic” social program.

Dzombak and Kramer emphasise that what is needed are ‘better’ technical products and interventions that ‘better’ understand people and their situated contexts. Instead, what if we asked ourselves how we, as engineers and designers, can shift our efforts towards longer-term, systematic re-engineering of the structural factors causing the growing inequality and poverty problem in the first place? The consequence of not answering this is that engineers and designers will run the ‘risk of repeating the damage already done by colonial, imperial, and neoliberal policies as long as we continue to work complicity in the same framework. As inherent changemakers, agitators, disruptors, and problem solvers, it is our imperative to do more. Without addressing the underlying structural, and even ideological barriers, this comfortable emphasis on “better” understandings and “better” solutions will not result in more “sustained intended benefits over time.”

Instead of thinking of ourselves as responsible for designing and engineering better technical solutions in the current development paradigm, let’s pool our collective insight, ambition, and dare I say, courage to go further than that. Let’s reinvent our place and identity in this system as the ones who are agitating towards a re-engineering of the development system itself.


Ledia Andrawes has over 10 years experience in strategy, research and design. More recently, she set-up ThinkPlace’s design studio in Kenya and partnered with businesses, governments and NGOs on delivering more human-centered services for low-income populations. Her expertise is in qualitative research, strategic facilitation, co-designing change, and building the innovation capability of the organisations she works with. Ledia is currently a Consultant to the Overseas Development Institute in London, a Research Associate with London School of Economics (LSE), and is working on her PhD on design thinking in global development through RMIT University in Melbourne.

References 

Banks, N., Hulme, D., & Edwards, M. (2015). NGOs, states, and donors revisited: Still too close for comfort?. World Development, 66, 707-718.

Chang, H. J. (2011). Institutions and economic development: theory, policy and history. Journal of Institutional Economics, (04), 473-498.

Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press.

Reid-Henry, S. (2012). Arturo Escobar: a post-development thinker to be reckoned with. The Guardian.

T. Wallace & F. Porter (2013). Aid, NGOs and the shrinking space for women: A perfect storm, in T. Wallace, F. Porter, M. Ralph-Bowman (Eds.), Aid, NGOs and the realities of women’s lives: A perfect storm. Practical Action Publishing, Rugby. 1–30.

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