Difficult decisions: picking our community

Difficult decisions: picking our community

I can safely say that my closest experience with the high intensity decision making of board room executives took place while covered in mosquito bites in the rural northwest province of Dajabón in the Dominican Republic.
Coming in on our Engineers Without Borders pre-assessment trip, we were spoiled by choice. Our partner NGO, Save the Children, had identified three potential partner communities for our team to begin to work with in the coming years, and on our initial trip we were tasked with entering the region for the first time, meeting with all three communities, and evaluating which community would allow us to build the most mutually beneficial partnership. Our situation was somewhat unique – many EWB projects start out of pre-existing relationships that a member of the university has with a community in a developing world country, whereas we began by somewhat blindly researching NGOs in countries across Latin America. As a result, a significant proportion of our chapter’s success rested on our ability to narrow down the multitude of choices available to us.
Outside of days set aside for travel, we only had five full days in Dajabón with which to work, so we knew that we had to methodically approach the selection process. We decided to dedicate a day each to the three communities, and spend the final two to start building a relationship with the selected community and begin preliminary assessment on what our development project would look like. This structure would allow us to maximize our time in the Dominican Republic and best sow the seeds for our project, while giving each of the three communities a fair consideration. We would hold a community meeting for a couple of hours in the morning where locals would be able to provide input on what they believed the biggest challenges that they faced were. Accompanied by some of the local leaders, we would then visit the existing infrastructure so we could evaluate the technical feasibility and come up with preliminary ideas for a project. After breaking for lunch we would regroup, discuss the EWB requirements with the community, and ask/answer any final questions. Finally, upon returning to Loma de Cabrera, the small town in which we were staying, we would debrief and summarize the key points of the day.
One of the major challenges that we faced, however, was minimizing the degree with which the arbitrary selection of the order of the communities that we visit would affect our final choice. Each community that we visited was clearly in great need and each was definitely deserving of our help. However, we could only partner with one community and we knew that no matter which we picked, two more would go without assistance in obtaining something as critically important to human life as water. Before our final discussion, we decided on the metrics on which to evaluate the three communities: the technical feasibility of a project, the magnitude of the potential impact of our involvement, and the organization of the community in terms of leadership and structure. By deciding on a community that maximizes these three metrics, we would be able to effectively implement a project that can sustainably satisfy the greatest need for the longest time, thus best utilizing our resources. This system also helped us to remain objective throughout the decision-making process, which was quite important as we all formed some emotional bonds with various members of the three communities. We also delayed the final discussion and choice to the morning of the fourth day so the recency of the third community would not play an unfairly large role.
Our final choice ended up being the community of El Cajuil. What was remarkable about this community was that although water shortages had plagued the community for several decades, they have nonetheless maintained a highly-organized structure within the community that has allowed them to manage with the little water that they do have. Just over 20 years ago, an aqueduct was installed, and the community self-organized into an aqueduct committee responsible for the management and maintenance of the well and the attached distribution system. They had the foresight to draft a constitution regulating the administration of the aqueduct. The committee collects a small tariff to attach each household to the aqueduct, with the funds going towards maintenance costs. It shuts down the water on the first Sunday of each month so the storage tanks can be cleaned. I think all of us were inspired by how organized this community is; we saw how far they got on their own, and we were confident that we could successfully work with them so that no matter what type of project we implement, we know that it will be in good hands.
I know the decision making skills I have gained on this trip will be invaluable as I progress both through the development of this EWB project as well as the rest of my time at Princeton and in my future career. I am beyond excited to be able to work with the impressive community of El Cajuil and the remarkable members of my team. Being able to engineer a concrete solution to a clearly-defined critical need while developing personally as a thinker, teammate, and engineer...what more can you ask for?

Written by Eric Qiu '18

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