Cyclone Pam was a Category 5 storm whose 280 km/h winds caused massive devastation in Vanuatu. I departed Vanuatu a few days before the storm for Tonga—after having completed preparation of an emergency project to address issues at Bauerfield International Airport in Port Vila—where I was working on a project rebuilding Ha’apai after last year’s Cyclone Ian. From there I was travelling to Tuvalu which, since being outside of the ‘cyclone belt’ I did not expect to be affected much by the storm. My Tuvaluan friends say that cyclones are created in the waters of Tuvalu but are a gift to their neighbours. This time they were unfortunately wrong. So my planned mission to review the aviation project turned into a post-disaster ‘Damage and Loss Assessment’ (DALA) mission which would help identify potential support for the World Bank after the disaster.
Working in developing countries one has an opportunity to see the effects—or lack thereof—of charities working in the development sector. For years I have been a strong supporter of Kiva which is a micro-finance site where we can identify people in different countries and provide support to them through a micro-loan. Of the 31 loans I’ve given, only one has not been repaid which is much better than I had anticipated. I use Kiva to find people in the countries I’m working in and support them, and my wife and I also don’t give gifts for birthdays etc. but Kiva vouchers.
Another initiative I support is ‘Give Well’. I came across them through a program where professional poker players give 2% of their salary to the top charities identified by GiveWell.
The philosophy behind GiveWell is that there are three qualities which really make a charity effective:
- Serving the Global Poor: Supporting developing countries
- Focused on Evidence Based Interventions: Programs which are evidenced based for making an impact.
- Thoroughly Vetted and Highly Transparent: There needs to be open public discussion of their track record, both good and bad.
The evidenced based criterion is controversial. I remember listening to an interview of a large NGO providing cows to farmers in Africa, with expenditure of hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, and they had not done a single proper analysis on the poverty impact of their efforts.
The GiveWell site has a database where they give an assessment of a range of charities. What is telling are the ones which declined to participate in the review—one of which was Helen Keller International which I raised funds for as a child. It’s also interesting how many don’t meet the above three criteria—including several that I have (and continue) to support.
They do recommend four top charities for support:
- Against Malaria Foundation
- Schistosemaiasis Control Initiative
- Deworm the World Initiative
When you read about their efforts and they way they operate it is clear that they are making a real impact. So I’ve used GiveWell to support them. After all, if poker players can do this so can I!
It was just over a year ago that Cyclone Ian destroyed much of the infrastructure on Ha’apai. I’ve been very grateful to have the opportunity to lead the World Bank team’s efforts at supporting the reconstruction. We’ve made progress—contracts have been let for constructing 400 houses—but it is not fast enough for my liking as people are still not rehoused. Hopefully not too much longer … This video shows why such a project is not only important, but personally the most rewarding work I’ve done for the Bank.
Since 2014 I’ve been working in Kiribati—first on a project to rehabilitate the main road and then on aviation. The Bank prepared a really nice slideshow and story on the road project which can be found here. It’s taken a lot longer than anyone had hoped, but we’ve an excellent contractor who is doing great work and the outcome of the project will be some excellent road infrastructure.
Because of work demands—I’ve been asked to prepare an emergency aviation project for Vanuatu—I have turned over the Kiribati projects to someone else to finish them, although I will continue to provide support as I have all the institutional memory!
When I moved to Toronto at the age of 5, my first friend was Rob Beatty. We went to primary school together, summer camps, and had amazing adventures together—kind of like Calvin and Hobbes at times. There was this wonderful toboggan run of death in the ravine behind his house … Rob was killed in a car crash a few years ago. Poor road design was a major contributing factor. Left his wife and four children under the age of 10.
As a transportation professional, my view is that we should not construct roads that we suspect might kill people. But I often take it a step further, because the tragedy of Rob’s death presents itself to me on every project. Have I done all I can to ensure that the projects I am responsible for will minimize the potential for road trauma? I hope so.
The New Zealand Government is promulgating an approach called ‘Safe Systems’. This shifts the responsibility for road accident trauma from the driver (or pedestrian/cyclist), to those of us responsible for the system. Mistakes happen, but have we designed a system which is ‘forgiving’ enough that these mistakes are not translated into major trauma or death. Not only is road accident trauma a tragedy for the individual family, but it is terrible for society as a whole. In some countries some 5% of GDP is lost due to road accident trauma.
The video below was prepared by the NZ Government and is aimed at transport professionals. Very thought provoking and well done, it will challenge your views on road safety. For more information check out www.saferjourneys.govt.nz. Think about what we all can do to reduce road trauma, from driving differently to having safer vehicles. And as engineers, safer infrastructure.
The World Bank has a vision of a world free of poverty.
Recently, a report was published which shows how challenging it will be to achieve that vision.
The figure below shows the actual growth rates in some countries, against what that growth rate needs to be to reduce poverty to < 3%. Many countries are unfortunately well short of being able to achieve the necessary growth rates which does not augur well for the future.
A second aspect of poverty has to do with the poorest 40% of people. As the figure below shows, the average household in the poorest 40% of Americans would be in the richest 10% in Brazil; while the average household in the poorest 40% of Brazil would be in the richest 10% in India. Due to differences in purchasing power between countries this is a bit distorting, but shows the challenges of eradicating poverty.
Some years ago Hans Rosling gave an amazing TED talk on this issue. Worth watching if you are interested in the subject.
I came across the enclosed (http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2010-12-07/) in a calendar I was given. As an engineer I can relate … especially today when we had a survey on the “Employee Value Proposition” related to the current restructuring at the World Bank.
My last project in China before transferring the Europe and Central Asia in 2008 was the Yichang-Badong (Yiba) expressway. This was a US$ 2.2 billion expressway through some very challenging terrain, including the ‘Three Gorges National Park’. The following key statistics summarize why it was so special:
- 172 km of expressways and 35.4 km of interconnecting roads
- 148 bridges for a total length of 70 km
- 75 tunnels for a total length of 61 km
- 3.75 million m3 of earthworks
- US$ 12.6 million/km
With challenging terrain, over 70% of the expressway consisting of tunnels and bridges (with the longest tunnel some 7.5 km long), the Hubei provincial government were concerned about the potential negative environmental impact of the project on such a sensitive area. These concerns were echoed by some at the Bank who I recall saying ‘why on earth would you want to put an expressway through a national park’ …
At the beginning of June I was invited to help lead a tour to China by the World Bank’s ‘Environmental Community of Practice’ (COP) which would be visiting the Hubei Yiba Highway Project. This was a major 172 km long expressway which I prepared for the Bank in 2007/8. It traversed a very environmentally sensitive area and my team and I put great efforts in trying to minimize the negative environmental impacts.
I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit China and see the project as I considered it to be one of the highlights of my professional career. To be able to escort over 100 environmental and social specialists from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Australian Aid, Japan, Korea and China to the project was an added honour as it would give me the opportunity to share a number of the unique innovations on the project. I’ll do a separate write up later on the project and what I found…
It was wonderful to catch up with old colleagues, but I was particularly humbled by the generosity of the Hubei Provincial Communications Department who gave me (and later the team) a special award for our contributions. I felt it was very undeserved since all we had done was to give the Government the best advice and support we could to achieve their vision.
The award gave me pause to think about the meaning of doing one’s job. After all, if all one is doing is what one is asked to do, then why the award? This led to reflections on the ethical obligations we have as engineers towards our clients and society because all my team and I were doing was fulfilling our duty to help as best we could. So I’m going to be a bit reflective here and share some thoughts on the issue of ethics and the engineer. Not a best selling subject, but an important one to all engineers.
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On May 28, 2014 the World Bank’s Board approved US$12 million in funding for the ‘Tonga Cyclone Ian Reconstruction and Climate Resilience Project’—or TCIRCRP. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a transport specialist. So what is a transport specialist doing leading a project to rebuild a community of 5,500 devastated by a cyclone? Well, on one level it all started in October when I felt impressed to a course on disaster management and recovery. In the Pacific Islands we regularly have disasters and I wanted to expand my understanding. It was really interesting and I hoped that one day I would be able to learn more.
Who would have thought that less than three months later I’d find myself in a zodiac boat visiting outer islands in Ha’apai—and bailing like mad to make sure that the boat didn’t sink! That was the start to a journey which has tasked me professionally, physically and emotionally beyond any other in my career at the Bank. But one which will have the greatest on the ground impact for people—which is why God has brought me to the Bank in the first place.