Here‘s an example of how a local, community-focused approach to an engineering problem leads to better, more lasting results than an interventionist, top-down approach:
THE PROBLEM: In the northwestern Awdal region of Somalia, environmental conditions had taken a severe toll on soil conditions. Runoff had depleted once fertile soil of vital nutrients causing crop failure, while at the same time reducing the amount of land available for both farming and grazing livestock.
A TRADITIONAL SOLUTION: Bring in experienced engineers from around the world to determine the best solution; import massive earth movers with trained operators and support staff; hire a few local workers to do minor tasks; get the work done; declare victory and leave.
THE UN’S EGER SOLUTION: The UN’s EGER project for this area (“Employment Generation for Early Recovery”) took a different approach. Instead of bringing in outsiders to “solve” the problem for the Somali people, the EGER project used local people to implement the work themselves. They built check dams (small dams, often temporary, that block an irrigation channel or swale), earth bunds (an embankment formed of earth to hold back water) and gabion boxes (wire or wicker boxes filled with stone or concrete) which helped stop and erase the effects of erosion. In the years since the project began, both farmland and pasture have been restored to the region.
This approach has had multiple advantages for the residents. In the short term, it gave them employment in a time when they were struggling financially due to the soil erosion issues. In addition, the project employed many in the communities who were disadvantaged — women, unemployed youth, or the displaced. The psychological benefits of valuable, meaningful work should not be overlooked either. In the long term, of course, the face of an entire region was reshaped by its own people, stabilizing their food supply and their economy. Moreover, the people in this region now have surplus food which they can take to markets to trade for different food to enrich their diet or for other necessities. Finally, having participated in the solution, they now have knowledge that will enable them to maintain the works and prevent a repeat of the erosion.