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Connecting the Policy with the Practice: Interview with Engineers Without Borders CEO George Roter

George Roter is the CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB), the organization behind Admitting Failure and the infamous Failure Reports. We sat down to chat with George last week. (Full disclosure: the artist formerly known as Intern Clare also works for EWB. It is still unclear which organization she is actually spying for. #aidpiratesunite!) Read on or listen to learn more about EWB’s work and George’s perspective on development.




PDT: I was wondering if you could give me your perspective on what EWB does, EWB’s role in development, and how you try to tackle the problems that you do.

GEORGE: I think at the summary level, my view on EWB’s role is really one as an organization that is basically looking to be an actor within the system that is finding areas that need to change in how development practice is actually being undertaken right now and how that environment is being enabled through policies and being very much an organization that is focused on changing the way things are done today, particularly with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. I think it’s a pretty unique role within the development world because you have this traditional set of NGOs who fall into, in my mind at least, one of two categories: one is service delivery providers, so these organizations who are on the ground, either large organizations or small organizations who are effectively taking contracts from generally government actors and government money but also donors delivering those services, and they [have] built an entire infrastructure within those organizations to effectively deliver those services. […] I think that that kind of service delivery piece among NGOs is quite well-established, and there are quite large ones there.

There is a second set of actors within the NGO world, obviously, who are much more focused at the policy level; so whereas the first set might be CARE or World Vision or even smaller or more specialized NGOs like WaterAid, you would have at the other end of the spectrum these advocacy organizations who are very focused at the policy level like Overseas Development Institute or Centre for Global Development, or even some of the lobbying organizations that are out there that are primarily lobbying on specialized issues like Mining Watch, Corporate Watch, or Amnesty International.

And the niche that we’ve carved out as an organization with EWB is this niche that I think is missing within the development world, which is connecting the policy and the practice but also playing a role where we’re trying to really understand the actions of both NGOs and government and the funders and really try to change the dynamics within those systems to be able to get better outcomes at the end of the day. There’s not that many people playing that role in the development world, that really are focusing primarily on change and changing those dynamics and doing so through a variety of different mechanisms that we employ as an organization. […] I actually don’t know that EWB does anything in service delivery, but I think what we do is we augment existing services and really try and work in that space.

PDT: I know that EWB has had a lot of success recently in the advocacy and policy field with regards to the success of your campaign to get the Canadian government to sign the International Aid Transparency Initiative. I wonder if you could just talk about the process of how that happened and the work that EWB did to make that happen.

GEORGE: It was really interesting; one of the things that we’ve done over the past 5 years as an organization since around 2006-2007 is we’ve stepped back and on the policy side asked ourselves “what are we seeing in terms of international development practice, how does that relate to the policy sphere, how do we interact in that policy sphere in a way that allows us to kind of improve the environment for effective development to be done?” So we stood back and asked ourselves that question in a general sense and originally spent some time in the aid and advocacy side on tied aid, as you know. And once that policy win was achieved we really said, “Okay, what’s next?”

"Mrs Landingham! What's next?" "Foreign aid transparency, Mr President. Have a cookie."

That brought us to about a year and a half ago, where we sat back and we crafted the ACT campaign, saying that [Canadian] aid effectiveness needs to improve on 3 dimensions, we felt: one was accountability, one was creativity, and the third was transparency. When we looked at these 3 areas, we said, “Okay, where are the most ripe opportunities for change? Where is the change that we’d like to see most aligned with the current thrust of this government, the current thrust of the international community and where the international community is going, where are the various pressures, what are the types of policies that are technically the most feasible, and then from that, what can we choose to advance this agenda?” And really [we recognized] that there is a broader and bigger agenda towards reconfiguring how Canada has its relationship developed with both African countries and other developing countries and how our aid regime reflects the reality of that relationship, but we felt that the incremental change that we could create around a specific policy would allow some really important momentum to be built.

So we chose the International Aid Transparency Initiative along the lines of this transparency piece largely because there was frankly already the intellectual work that was done around IATI, there’s a great organization driving that who’s really understanding the effects that this can have at a macro and a micro level who are building the pieces behind it that were kind of the specific technical pieces to bring it into being. All we needed to do as an organization was be able to play the role that we can play in Canada which is being highly connected and a very large advocacy grassroots network across the country to direct our efforts towards government along the lines of IATI.

Once we chose it, it was a matter of building on the relationships we had with MPs, making official submissions and unofficial submissions to bureaucrats and to government, and I think in total there were probably a few hundred, over 500 meetings with various MPs, bureaucrats, and other officials on IATI. Those meetings really advanced the agenda; so did the public events and having us being mentioned in the media and having people talk about it; so did the letters that Canadians were sending, both e-letters and paper letters – those had a pretty important effect as well as they started to get noticed by the Minister’s office and political side; and ultimately that sustained conversation about IATI for about 8 months leading up to October got us to a point where we were invited first to give a presentation to the Minister of Finance and the Finance Committee on IATI.

The University of Saskatchewan's EWB "Black Box" to promote aid transparency.

From there that information progressed its way to the CIDA minister’s office, who felt that the time was right and that this was a really sensible policy and a sensible move for Canada and a sensible way for us to be seen as a leader, I think, on the international stage, which is why she announced it in Busan during a global meeting on aid effectiveness. It was really kind of EWB both introducing the concept to this government (which hadn’t really even considered it) and making the intelligent case, as well as creating the pressure and the momentum from within government from a variety of different voices, and then ultimately helping them know how to follow through on making that decision.

PDT: Obviously a lot of work went into that as an organization on a really high policy level, but one of the really cool strengths that I think EWB has is the strength of its chapter network in order to be able to do big campaigns like this and really tap into so many sources across the country to get that done.

GEORGE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, those 500 conversations, a lot of those happened through our chapters and through various events. The high-level work would’ve fallen on deaf ears unless we were able to back it up by media attention, unless we were able to back it up by letters, unless we were able to back it up by meetings with individual MPs who then would have meetings with others, so yeah: none of this would’ve been possible without that grassroots side of EWB’s chapters, who play a really unique role

When we walk into the offices of MPs, they look forward to chatting with us; they look forward to chatting with EWB chapter people. I remember chatting with Alix Krahn, who’s at the University of Alberta, and her telling me a little bit about the meetings she’s had with Conservative MPs up in Edmonton, and her saying that they enjoy chatting with us because there’s a level of reasonability and pragmatism, but there’s still a level of passion and drive towards something different than there is today, and I think that that combination really allows us to do some incredible things.

Students at the University of Ottawa at a public outreach event encouraging people to ask Canada to sign IATI.


PDT: Regarding that passion and pragmatism, I know you had a TED Talk where you spoke about the importance of bringing together the head and the heart in making development decisions, in making investment decisions, in deciding which organizations and which people to support with your resources and your time. I was wondering if you could just elaborate on that concept a little bit?

GEORGE: To be honest, I think that where a lot of that was coming from is realizing that what I’ve observed is people take one of two approaches to international development: they get really excited about it, they get really passionate, and I think at times they kind of turn off their brains and engage that passion and that heart, whether it’s through their donations and saying “I really feel like I want to support that project or that child” or it’s literally as volunteers and saying “I’m going to go take a trip and I’m going to buy a plane ticket and I’m going to go to Haiti and I’m going to volunteer in an orphanage,” or “I’m going to take a group of people from my Rotary club and I’m going to go build a well in rural Malawi.” That’s incredible passion and it’s incredible heart, but I think that it’s not sufficient by any stretch of the imagination and I think, in fact, it can be quite problematic and harmful. There have been a lot of years of people acting with the greatest of intentions and frankly either creating negative incentives like dependency issues with various governments or communities, or mixed expectations, or just frankly inefficiency in the type of work that’s being done that has resulted in a lot of, I would say, in the worst case a lot of harm being done and a lot of development actually stagnating because of those great intentions, and in the best case scenario a lot of inefficiency of resources spent.

When incorporating hearts into your life choices, structural integrity is key.

At the same time, on the other side – and this doesn’t get talked about as much – there’s this kind of technocratic elite that has created a career and created long-term jobs out of the development world. It’s incredibly complex and it’s quite easy to get cynical. And you see that cynicism drift into the way that things are managed, where people start kind of treating reports as checklists and reports as requirements rather than opportunities to learn, where they start looking at people as numbers and statistics rather than as human beings who both have feelings and drive and ambition and who are rational decision-makers whose behaviour matters. The other side of that is too much focusing on the head gets very disconnected from the reality of what it’s going to take to actually address these most complex issues, and is equally as harmful as the naïve good-intentions folks.

I think that there’s a very powerful approach that combines those two, which I have seen in EWB, and which I have seen within our partners, and which I have seen in other leaders within the development world who still remain very grounded in what realities are on the ground and care about people who are ultimately being affected by this very deeply, and think about them and incorporate them into their decision-making, while at the same time being very intelligent about the types of changes [and actions] that are necessary and how to bring them about. And so where this has often been a one-or-the-other, I think one of the big innovations, if you want to call it that, within EWB is creating an organization in the spirit of that: where we don’t apologise for being passionate and really engaging that heart side, and we don’t prevent that from us asking tough questions and being really intelligent about the work that we’re doing.


PDT: Exactly. Just to wrap it up, what’s next in the next few months? Is there something that’s really exciting for EWB coming up?

GEORGE: That’s a great question. I think that one of the things that’s quite neat in some of our African work is that, particularly in Ghana but now it’s expanding elsewhere, we’ve developed a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise in working with a lot of different actors around agricultural value chains (so both inputs like fertilizer and seeds, and outputs and connecting to output markets and having farmers have more access to those output markets). And we’ve now been involved in a large number of programs both in Zambia and Ghana over the past 5 years with this approach of value chain facilitation where we’re able to very intentionally and purposefully build the connections between the various permanent entities within an agricultural value chain. So that’s the people who are going to be on the ground selling fertilizers and supplying them, and the farmers who are going to be using them – that approach is building and growing a tremendous amount of momentum in the development world.

EWB is really well-positioned on the leading edge of some of that work, particularly in Ghana, and are now being asked to take some of the approaches that we’ve developed and that we’ve seen – the approaches to learning, the approaches to understanding the role of those various different actors. We’re being asked to use that knowledge to be able to kind of guide fairly large amounts of work on value chain facilitation in Ghana, but also now in Uganda, even in Kenya and [a few] other countries, so that’s a very exciting development where we’re able to take all this knowledge that we have that exists at a ground level and a high level [and share it elsewhere].

PDT: So cool. 

GEORGE: Yeah! Neat stuff!


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  1. AB says:

    Clare, we eagerly await your exposé. Hope you still miss the crazy. AB

  2. Weh Yeoh says:

    Excellent interview. Even better (and more creative) transcribing 😉

  3. mnatives says:

    Thank you posting an Excellent interview this is event.

  4. Clare Hutchinson says:

    AB – oh dear… is this the EWB AB, or the PDT AB? #spyperils And don’t you worry – either way, I’ve still got Word documents full of incriminating information waiting for the right time to strike. And I do miss the crazy – my regular brand of crazy just isn’t strong enough some days!

    Weh – You’re just lucky I didn’t transcribe the bit where he asked me how my midterms were going. (But thank you.)

    mnatives – Merci!

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