Global Citizens

Critical Reflection Pieces from a course I took this year, Global Citizens: Thinking about Volunteering.I decided to post them since they are highly relevant to my development as a volunteer, and an engineer this year. 

Critical Reflection 1:

The House of Tomorrow
Reflections on Organizational Paradigms 

Like in a dream, certain moments come back to me in flashes, bringing with them remnants of the emotions attached to each separate encounter.  An old man asking for an extra piece of chicken, offended by the size of the portion given to him at the Feeding Project’s Christmas event; a young girl clinging to my shins as I leave a half-way house, smiling at me as she shoves away other children; crouched inside a small dark room, my hands outstretched in front of me, glowing by the warm fire in the steel drum as the dark faces smile at me with toothless grins, telling me about their troubles with their humble, beer-brewing business. I would like to say I’ve had many experiences like these, but the truth is that I’ve had limited involvement with service. Nevertheless, the experiences that I’ve had have left deep and significant footprints on my life and understanding of service, no matter what paradigm they’ve ascribed to.  Right now however, I guess you could call me a project manager, and my organization one that ascribes to the paradigm of ‘project’, but we are at the exciting brink of a transition. Who knows what our future will hold...
My role with Engineers Without Borders on the ‘Township Caterers’ Project’ involves managing a team of bright-eyed, young engineering students, leading them to find better, cleaner and safer ways for caterers in Nyanga informal settlement to cook and sell food. As lead, I have the fortunate position to engage in multi-level involvement from organizing meetings, to contacting helpful experts and NGO’s, to building personal relationships with community members. I see myself as having many purposes in this role, the obvious being project manager, ensuring that the project is progressing and meeting the expectations of all stakeholders, including the community. But early on, I realised that I have been afforded an opportunity to do so much more than that. My project team looks up to me as a leader; they are mostly young and inexperienced and I feel I have a responsibility to them as a teacher. Thus I have tried to expose them to a wider context of poverty and sustainable development and ethics, hoping that this will open their minds to continually seek understanding in their service. Thirdly, over the past months my involvement with EWB has grown, and with it my sense of responsibility to the organization and its future, culminating in my taking over training of next year’s EWB committee.
For the first time, my impact has the potential to expand further than the duration of a charitable encounter or project; I suddenly and unexpectedly have a hand in the philosophy of a seedling organization, which will very possibly shape all their future undertakings. This brand new committee has been presented the amazing opportunity to define the direction of the organization, determining what we stand for through developing mission and value statements, directly influencing the type of work EWB will do. The handover workshops I will be running over the next few weeks will not just serve to continue the work that we as outgoing members have been doing, but to lay the foundation of the organization’s future.  It’s difficult to describe the feelings I am faced with, excited about having a hand in EWB’s vision, an organization which could be on the cusp of accelerating into greatness At the same time I’m apprehensive about handing over to such a fresh and new committee, and regretful that I won’t be there to take EWB forward.
What will the future hold for EWB? Across what exciting new frontiers will the new committee steer?  What kind of impact will they choose to make and just how far will they be willing to venture? I cannot hope to answer these questions.  The answers dwell in the realm of possibilities of which I have no part in.  I know what I want, what I hope and what I dream for our future, but all can realistically do is point the way to the door. Only they can dream of opening it. I am reminded of Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ which speaks of a parent’s part in their children’s future.   
“...You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far...”

Who knew this kind of service, which I can best describe as social change, could affect me so deeply and so personally?  Having been involved at so many levels of service, charity through the Greytown Feeding Project, project through my work in Nyanga and now social change through organizational learning, I cannot say whether I would want to any one of them differently. Each have had their place, each were relevant and important in their respective time, and through each I was able to impact a person or group of people who I believe needed my help or guidance in their own way.  Strangely enough, EWB has become like a child to me, a child with vast opportunities and endless possibility in the realm of charity, project and social change. However, which door it will choose to walk through, which paradigm it will ultimately pursue, dwells in the ‘house of tomorrow’...

Critical Reflection 1:

Development from the perspective of engineering                             

As an engineer, we’re taught to view a problem objectively and to consider it from many angles to accurately assess the root causes before generating solutions.  So I think I am already programmed to tackle root causes.  But being an engineer, I also feel that I have been ‘under-programmed’ to seeing the value of ‘treating the symptom’.  During the exercise in class where we were asked to discuss the drawing of people falling off a cliff like lemmings, I was adamant that you had to stop the flow up the pipeline. I really didn’t understand how anyone would think that helping the ‘injured heap’ of people made sense! Just a quick assessment in my head brought me to the conclusion that with a fixed amount or supply of resources, at some point your capacity to help new-comers to the injured heap will deplete and you will be stick in the same position as at the start.
If you think about it this way, then the decision is very simple. You must route all your resources to the top of the cliff and solve the problem at the source. However, while discussing it in the group, my mind started to broaden and I began to see things in a slightly different light.  When faced with a dire need, such as starvation or disease which is a wide-spread and time-urgent issue, you cannot ignore the infected while seeking to solve the root causes.  Education, hospitals and farming endeavours will solve these problems, but they take time and commitment from people. ‘You can’t teach a hungry child’, was a comment from a later session that stuck with me for some reason.
During the exercises that ensued after we discussed the ‘lemmings’ drawing, I challenged myself to think about things from the opposite standpoint to my initial assumption of tackling the problem exclusively at the source. I must admit, this was very challenging for me. What helped was trying to think of real-life examples and personal experiences that demonstrated the value of charity as opposed to social change. An experience came to mind. When I volunteered at the Feeding Scheme in Greytown, the rural town in the Natal Midlands where I grew up. Seeing the state of the children and adults and just how little they had brought forth strong emotions. Knowing that the two meals a week at the Scheme and the Sunday meal form the church was the only food some of these kids had to look forward to, was impossible to understand. I have never known hunger. When I studied the Holocaust for an elective and read the stories of people in concentration camps: the cold, the disease, the starvation; I was completely unravelled. Seeing that people in this country experience those conditions even though they are free is appalling. 
So I came to the conclusion that yes, you need to tackle to root causes, but when you are dealing with people, real human beings, you cannot divorce your humanity or ignore their suffering. Whether it is feeding a thousand people a week, or visiting a lonely old woman in an old-age home, you are making an impact to somebody’s life.
This insight ties into the next topic that interested me greatly. The session which asked ‘what is development?’ got me thinking about things I have never thought about before.  I’m not sure why but I was really distant that day due to a really stressful week and feel like I didn’t fully connect with what was being discussed. To add to that, I don’t like debates very much and feel they add a competitive division to a group that isn’t always productive. Nevertheless, I participated and the debate turned out to be quite interesting. Again, it forced me to see an argument from somebody else’s standpoint.
It occurred to me that I’d had a tunnel-view on what development meant. The discussion and debate spurned me to think deeper about what poverty means and the determining factors of poverty. It’s very easy to say, ‘teach a man to fish’, but what if the man has no fishing rod?  What if the river he has always fished at suddenly dried up due to a new dam being built by developers? What if the river was on the other side of a gorge and he needed a bridge to access it? Now this was very interesting since I had recently decided that one should consider both the symptom and the cause of a problem. Now, I had to look beneath both and find the underlying contributor to the system and the structures in place that institutionalised poverty and prevented people from developing.
The question of ‘what is development?’ in that session struck me as especially confusing at first. Again, as an engineer I see development as technology and accessibility of information, the building of cars and roads and buildings, hospitals and systems that improve the convenience of peoples’ lives.  I see development as physical and tangible things, assets and resources. It was a humbling experience to see how naive I had been. Development in the context of poverty is an entirely different sphere of thought and comes with so many new ideas to me. For one, the value of education and alongside social change is something that seems so far removed from the field of science and engineering. Having mentored in the Mechanical Engineering department for two years and tutoring at a local NGO, I have been exposed to education and its relevance in my field, yet I have never thought deeply before of how it all links up to my life and career.
Being an engineering student who actively engages in service, I have had the opportunity to see the impact of development in the ‘real-world’.  This year I have worked on a major project collaboratively with the Department of Chemical Engineering, the City of Cape Town, Jakupa Architects and PD Naidoo and Associates engineering consultancy. Through this I have been exposed to how engineers impact society through development, not only from an outcomes perspective, but also the processes that go into development.
Jakupa had developed a framework with the community and traders in Nyanga to rearrange the layout of the Nyanga Interchange to maximise traffic past stalls and boost the informal economy.  Even though they were being contracted by the city, they still understood that it was imperative that the people they were serving had a hand in the developmental strategy at every phase in order to assure buy-in.  Unfortunately, the taxi-association grounded the plans through refusal to accept the framework and sent them back to the drawing board.  PDNA consultants and the City of Cape Town warned my group about the danger of creating expectations for the subjects of my project’s implementation, saying that it was the surest way to hamper the project’s perceived success (which is all that matters in the end).
I was surprised and highly interested by the intrinsic inclusion and consideration for the community’s needs and wants in developing this area, even by ‘big names’ like PDNA. It made a lot of sense to me nevertheless as buildings and public spaces are not merely artworks after all, but places that are used by thousands of people on a daily basis.  Speaking to Gita Govan from ARG design showed me how useless a grand engineering design is if it doesn’t meet the needs of the people you are designing for. I was very impressed by how much these engineering firms invested in their community research and included the community in their developmental planning, even if they weren’t working from a strictly ‘service’ standpoint.
So I began to question why there was such disconnect between my experience of what engineering is as an engineering student at UCT and what engineering was in the real world. Yes, we are taught to address the problem, and yes we are to design for the customer, but do any of us really know what that means in a real-life context? Have I ever been given a design problem that required me doing any research of social considerations that may seriously impact my design? Have I ever been asked a question that was set in the context of ‘designing for the other 90%’? No, but why not? Do we not live in the country with the highest Gini Coefficient in the world? Is it not the university’s responsibility to address this and produce engineers who are geared at exactly that?
I can definitely see the value of courses such as Global Citizens II and its relevance to my career. However, the ideas breached in Global Citizens are not exclusive to the sphere of service but as was mentioned in the last session, promote seeing the world through ‘social justice spectacles’. But this again should not just be applied going forth into the working world, but should be institutionalised consistently throughout the engineering syllabus, teaching our students about the community-focused implications of engineering.  After all, whether you’re designing a cell phone or an energy-efficient wood stove, you’re hoping that somebody will want to use it and be happy with it.

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