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  • 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 fortunated, I found the Calgary chapter here,

  • I got to be the first director of overseas programs for EWB 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.

  • It was really fantastic working for EWB

  • 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.

  • 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 deep understanding

  • of what was going on at the field level,

  • And combined with this experienceand hundreds of other EWB 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,

  • economists have become authors and have written about it

  • and there's a lot of controversy about its effectiveness,

  • some even asking the question, "Has aid failed?"

  • It's a very interesting question.

  • Now, I am confident to say on behalf of EWB staff members

  • that failed or not, we definitely feel that the aid system is broken.

  • And when I say broken it's not 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.

  • I am talking about aid being broken in democratic 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,

  • into a number of communities

  • where there are 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 are 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 this system.

  • And some people 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, EWB has done some work and found out

  • that even out 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, 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 that just broken down water points.

  • 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 [with] 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, in the end,

  • if the elected government doesn't meet the needs of its constituency,

  • they have a chance to vote them out of power,

  • therefore holding them accountable.

  • But in the development sector,

  • if they don't serve the needs of their beneficiaries

  • and aren't only NGO's, they're governments and 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 is the 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 inheritedly structurally built to be more sustainable

  • and to allow beneficiaries to hold them accountable.

  • However, 70% of people in sub-Saharian Africa

  • still make less than 2 dollars a day, they are still in poverty.

  • And the reason is

  • because the private and the public sector are not serving them appropriately.

  • So we do need to invest in businesses and 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,

  • to make it more accountable, more creative, 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.

  • EWB is working out on one that's actually quite simple,

  • it's admitting failure.

  • My first project with EWB was in India, where I worked with a bunch of schools.

  • Poor of the poorest of schools in India, with the untouchable cast.

  • This is Bani, she was a girl who was in one of those 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 they could have fresh water to drink, and for cooking, and the bathroom.

  • My job as an EWB was to help solve the problem.

  • I worked with the communities and their rain water harvest solutions

  • were to collect water from the rooftops during the monsoons

  • bring it through gutters, filter and store it for the dry season.

  • After a number of months I left,

  • we had our project funded and 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 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 a lot of them had been built,

  • but some of them had broken down

  • because there is no maintenance schedule plan 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 helped her at all.

  • 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 EWB had failed too.

  • But EWB have this culture of embracing failure openly, letting us talk about it,

  • and 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 ones and we can learn from them.

  • And we started to innovate and to change.

  • EWB is drastically different now,

  • ten years later than what we thought EWB should be doing in development.

  • We don't build water points anymore.

  • As a matter of fact, we don't build anything other that spreadsheets.

  • Now we have this innovative marketing campaign

  • "Sponsor an African spreadsheet,"

  • because we understand that the problems are not hardware problems

  • is all about that software side of things.

  • It's a really hard concept to get across to people,

  • they 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; is not sexy, but it works.

  • So our staff members were really exited to share this failure internally

  • but we still were not doing a good job of letting other people know,

  • and some very courageous field staff were getting upset at the management

  • because other projects were making the same failures and weren't learning.

  • They pushed our management staffand we were nervous about it

  • about publishing our failures, but for the last three years,

  • EWB has published an annual failure report sighting our biggest failures.

  • At first I was 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 is an injustice not to be sharing these.

  • Then we realized that no one reads reports so we built a site, admittingfailure.com.

  • 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 Reviewjust 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

  • not only the development sector has these challenges, [it crosses to others].

  • Two companies had failures lately, and what's interesting about them

  • is that one 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.

  • It will be interesting looking forward to see which of those strategies works.

  • Firstly, I'd like to ask people to think about

  • how does your organization think about and share failure.

  • Maybe ask the person next to you

  • because it can generate really interesting conversations.

  • And lastly, I'd like to turn back to this question, "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.

  • (Applause)

Meet Inook. He is a pretty happy guy.