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Are you a Planner or a Searcher?

October 11, 2010

In ‘White Man’s Burden‘ William Easterly writes that there are two general groups of people who are working to overcome poverty – the Planners, and the Searchers.

“The Planners” come in, thinking that they know the answers, the right way to solve a problem, they have their ultimate goal in mind and a process laid out for how to get there.  They determine a solution to a specific problem, and then implement it.  In terms of water, I think this would be something like “Let’s put 60 boreholes in 60 communities and provide community based management training so that they will maintain their water points.   While we’re at it, we’ll put a monitoring system at the district office so they can have GPS coordinates of every water point in the district.”

Sounds pretty nice…. but what happens to the communities where drillers can’t find water?  Or when the water point committees have the skills to fix their boreholes, but no reliable access to the spare parts that they require to do so?  And soon enough, the district office has 3 separate monitoring systems installed, all working slightly differently, so that they can’t be coordinated, but none of them exactly meeting the needs that they require.

“The Searchers” on the other hand, see poverty as a complex puzzle that only insiders can solve.  They look for what’s working, use trial and evaluation to improve upon it and develop and refine new approaches as they go along.  They recognize that there isn’t a one size fits all solution or process, but rather that continuous monitoring is needed to guide projects and activities.

A Searcher might realize that the District is actually quite effective at the actual installation of boreholes, and community training, but the challenges they face lie in issues of functionality of existing boreholes, and identifying which communities are in the most need of water points.  Next, a searcher might look for some possible solutions that are working, see how we can fit them to the current situation, try one and evaluate to see if it’s successful.

I like to think of my work as falling into the searcher category.  Working with the District Water Development Office, we’re establishing an internal management and monitoring system to understand how we can support newly trained area mechanics to increase borehole functionality.  I’m helping District staff to build data management skills, so that they can make better decisions about how, when and where data is used for project siting, planning and evaluation.    We’re expanding and further refining a promising program that motivates communities to handle their water safely and maintain their water points.

Here’s the catch.  The planners can promise big things, but history shows that these grand plans seldom work. There are just too many factors to consider, and things change.  No one would think of laying out a plan for exactly what Canada is going to look like 10 years from now, so why do we think we can do it for other countries?

Searchers can’t promise such specific achievements, they are not sure exactly where they’re going to end up or what results will be produced, but they are more adaptable to conditions as they change, develop a greater understanding of the intricacies, and are more responsive to demand and innovation.  It’s a little bit scarier going the Searcher route – what happens if we don’t find what we’re looking for?

I can’t guarantee how many additional people are going to have access to water because of my work. But does fear of failure mean we should just pick a single solution and plow ahead?  I don’t think so.  Let’s understand what the biggest challenges are, move forward with an alternative and see how it goes.  If it shows success, we’ll keep going.  If it’s not working, let’s be open to our mistakes, change our course, and try again.

For each challenge that I’m looking at – area mechanic support, district data management, and community willingness to pay for water – Do I know what the “best” or “right” way to solve it is?  No I don’t.  Does anybody?  I highly doubt it.   Will we ever know for sure?  I hope not.  This is a dynamic system that we’re working in, and falling into the trap of thinking that you ever have it completely figured out, isn’t going to help anyone.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth permalink
    October 11, 2010 6:46 pm

    Alyssa, this reminds me of a passage I actually just copied out last night from The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz.

    ” Today’s world needs more than humanitarians. We need individuals who know how to listen and who have real and tangible skills to share. We will succeed only if we fuse a very hardheaded analysis with an equally soft heart.” pg. 284

    • October 18, 2010 1:13 pm

      Interesting, I think that does echo a lot of what Easterly is saying. How’s the book? Its on a reading list of mine, but I haven’t read it yet. I did enjoy her TED talks however.

  2. susaloo permalink
    October 16, 2010 1:52 am

    lyss, reading your entry made me think of my newly begun work at yonge street mission with street-involved-youth and it confirms in me that searcher method is helpful in an individual’s liberation from the cycle of poverty as well. thanks for blogging 🙂

    • October 18, 2010 1:16 pm

      I found the planner/searcher analogy applied to a number of things outside of work here as well. When I was reading it, I was thinking about EWB chapter work and how we look for new ways to engage people, now that I’m here in Malawi, I’m applying it to my work here. It’d be interesting to see what other contexts it applies to as well

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