Posted by: norapillard | March 4, 2012

Problems that matter and owning up to failure

By Nora Pillard Reynolds, WfW VP & Director of Communication

“The concept that it was completely unacceptable that 5 million people in Malawi did not have access to fresh water when engineers back in Canada were working on problems such as making a photocopier increase its speed from 149 pages per minute to 151 pages per minute. We need to work on problems that matter.”

–David Damberger, founder of Engineers without Borders Calgary

David Damberger

I love TED talks! I send the links to my friends, I show them in class to my students, and, often, I think differently about some idea after watching one. Here is a great one that relates not only to water, but can be applied to all types of organizations.  In this video, David Damberger, founder of the Calgary chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB), explores the state of the development sector and urges all of us to embrace failure in order to learn and improve.

Failed water systems

Damberger describes his experiences working with EWB in Malawi where he encountered numerous failed water systems. One of his co-workers discovered that out of 113 water systems, only 81 were functioning. He states that “although infrastructure was built, there was no thinking about who was going to maintain the system”. He continues to examine the problem and highlights that “a lot of donors focus on hardware, not realizing the importance of software. If you donate money, you feel better if your money went to something tangible- a well, a school, a goat, not a water committee”.

This is certainly a struggle for WfW as well, but we work to maintain our focus on software because without the software, the hardware won’t matter. We dedicate a lot of time and energy to thinking specifically about water system maintenance and this is something that continues to be a challenge for us as an organization.

In her blog post  The Challenges of Sustainability, Meaghan Gruber, our former project manager, described some of our efforts that focus on water committees and community maintenance funds.  Additionally, Virginia Leiba, our director of community outreach in Waslala, is responsible for conducting community meetings and leading health and environmental education workshops. Although investment in software may not seem as “sexy” as hardware, WfW recognizes and acts on its importance in our work.

See Our Approach for more information related to our emphasis on trainings in the community and on-going evaluations of our systems to ensure that we learn about problems and improve our work.

Through his discussion of failed water system projects in Malawi, Damberger transitions to a more general topic- one that impacts all of us in our personal and professional lives in all sorts of industries…FAILURE.


Admitting failure is hard! I commend EWB Canada for their willingness to admit failure. They actually publish an annual failure report so that we can all learn from mistakes in order to make improvements! Damberger poses a great question for all of us (working on water issues or not) to consider: how does your organization think about and share failure?


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