Sunday, January 02, 2011

Understanding What a Community Wants and Needs

As we consider foreign aid reform in our 2011 Offering of Letters, it is imperative that we examine some of the models out there that are already working. 

Catapult Design Photo
The Sunday edition of the Albuquerque Journal (Jan. 2) has a great feature about Heather Fleming, co-founder of the non-profit Catapult Design, a consultancy that offers engineering and support to thousands of organizations worldwide that need technologies or products capable of igniting social change.
The company, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, fully subscribes to the concept of "local ownership," which means that the community that benefits from a project must have an important role in the decision-making process.  Here's what Catapult Design says in its Web site:
We believe successful products aren’t defined by technological feats, but rooted in a holistic perspective of the development process that is centered on the needs of the end-user.

In other words, what good is a water filtration product if no one wants it, uses it, or will pay for it?  And if low-cost water filtration products exist, why does the majority of the world’s population still drink dirty water?
In an interview with Albuquerque Journal feature columnist Leslie Linthicum Ms. Fleming, who grew up in the rural community of Vanderwagen in McKinley County, New Mexico, reiterates the point.

"You have to understand what a community wants and needs," Ms. Fleming said in the interview, which was contained in a piece entitled Changing the World, With Better Stoves. "It's got to come from them in some way."  Here is the link to the piece if you have a subscription to The Journal.

The World Economic Forum named Ms. Fleming as one of the Young Global Leaders for 2010.  And she was also was recognized in the Mercy Corps site:
Born on an Indian reservation in New Mexico, Fleming knows first hand the difficulties people face growing up without resources many take for granted, such as running water or electricity. Her experiences eventually led to the pursuit of a degree as a civil engineer and the start up of Catapult Design, a company she co-founded with Tyler Valiquette.
So what type of  projects does Catapult Design support? Among these are the wind turbine in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, the LED lighting project (a substitute for kerosene lamps) in multiple locations around the world, the The Ihangane Solar Project in Nyange, Rwanda.
"In locations with prodigious wind, a small wind generator capable of charging a car battery would be an ideal way for them to meet their modest needs while avoiding the health and environmental pitfalls associated with their current solutions," says the Catapult Design Web site. 
At the same time, Ms. Fleming points to the challenge of  working with small community organizations that have no capacity for taking local solutions to any larger scale to benefit more people.
"So, even if we do design the most bad-ass technology to alleviate poverty worldwide," Fleming said the Journal interview, "this organization is so small and has such limited capacity so that technology will never scale."
 Below a 6-minute video featuring Ms. Fleming talking about her work.

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