On usefulness and international development

Stefan Kohler helps lead Arup’s International Development group, which collaborates with development and community organizations to provide technical and managerial expertise in communities around the world. Founded three years ago, it operates as a nonprofit based within the firm.

I spoke to him about development, nonprofits, and prioritizing usefulness.


How did the group get started?

There’s a concept of intrapreneurship, of people starting a business within a business — Arup is kind of all about that. Jo [da Silva, a director in Arup’s London office] saw in the development and humanitarian space a gap for the private sector to be involved. The private sector has a lot of knowledge and expertise that should be brought into this sector, but there’s a level of distrust, because there’s this angst that private companies come in just to make money.

So Jo structured the group within Arup as not-for-profit, which simply means we don’t put money back into the overall Arup profit share pot. But we have to be commercially successful and stand on our own two feet, which is what we do. And if we do have any surpluses, we invest these back into the group.

We invest in our projects, people, and clients. For example, if a client has done a really interesting piece of work that they have no money to disseminate more broadly across the development world, we can fund that and publish it. Which obviously raises Arup’s profile, so we see that as a good investment. And strengthens the relationship with our clients.

There are two main reasons why we’ve taken on nonprofit status. One, commercially, we understand what this market can sustain in terms of fees. The other is it enables us to have conversations with clients who Arup wouldn’t traditionally talk to: for example, the International Federation of the Red Cross.

Why would Arup typically not be able to talk to the Red Cross?

They would see us as being a purely commercial entity. NGOs are very conscious of the divide between private sector and NGO.

Photo from a Danish Red Cross integrated programming study, Nepal

You mentioned that there’s a gap between the expertise that NGOs need and the expertise available outside of the private sector. Can you say more about this?

We saw that there were three levels at which there was a gap. One was what we would normally consider organizational level. Then there’s a gap at project delivery level, and at what we’d call program management level.

At the organizational level, we can provide strategic advice to development or humanitarian organizations around how they would do certain things. For example, we’ve been invited by large international NGOs to comment on some of their strategic internal documents around their planning and design processes.

There’s also a component of that where we can help them assess and evaluate the effectiveness of some of their projects and the operational things they’re doing. We’ve done work with the Red Cross on evaluating their core community-based disaster reduction program, which then feeds back into the strategic thinking about how they deliver projects and what will enable them to achieve the outcomes they desire. That can also happen on a very specific project level.

We also do what are called design and management. We can actually manage projects on behalf of a client or do detailed design work. It’s something that has come out of feedback we have received from our clients saying they really value the depth and breadth of technical skills that we can provide.

Photo from the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network project, Mumbai, India

We don’t have all the skills within our group to do everything; we draw quite heavily on the rest of Arup. This benefits Arup as well. We certainly bring a lot of value by exposing Arup to clients that the firm traditionally couldn’t be engaged with, and also creating opportunities for staff to work on projects that they might not necessarily get a chance to work on.

For example, one NGO said, “We want to build a community facility using bamboo. Do you have any structural engineers that know anything about designing in bamboo?” And we found a guy in London who has this skill, and he’s had an opportunity to go to Asia and be very involved in this project.

Are there misconceptions about the work that you do, or points that you wish people understood better?

One of the critical elements of our work is context. Core to our business is that we don’t want to work as a typical consultant, in the sense of go in, write a report, then leave. We’re very focused on collaboration, working together with our clients. We’re very selective about who we work with, and want to work with clients we can develop a long-term relationship with. Do they have the same values as us?

The other one is obviously the content of our projects. Technically, do we have the skills and expertise to do this? Which is obviously where the rest of Arup comes into the picture.

But one of the things I think we’re very strong on is context. It’s not just where the project is, but the whole social, political, geographical, economic context within which you’re working, which really shapes what we call the outcomes of the project, and the outputs — the documents or spreadsheets.

Community-based disaster relief risk reduction study workshop

We’re very particular about things that we produce being really high-quality and appropriate. Very simply, they have to be useful. There are too many examples in the development world of consultants coming in and producing reports that get put on a shelf and nobody knows what to do with them. The outcome we’re looking for is obviously that our clients can use the deliverable, that it influences change and achieves the objective that they were hoping for.

There’s a growing sense that the best way to help the poor is not to design for them, but rather to help them solve their own problems. How do you see this issue play out in your work?

That’s once again very much around designing things that are appropriate for the context. I can give you a little example of a project I just looked at in Southeast Asia, where we were asked to help a client design wastewater disposal systems. They had a feasibility report done by a consultant who came up with what was probably a very technically competent report, but their system required the construction of something like 70 pump stations. There was no way that the local authority could hope to pay for and operate 70 pump stations. In the context, it was completely inappropriate.

What we have to then do is come up with an appropriate technical solution that works in the context. Can we come up with low-flow gravity systems? Is there another way of treating water, treating wastewater? And that’s where we really apply clever thinking to the design to meet the needs of the client and the end users. Consultation and involvement of stakeholders in the design process is therefore critical in developing an appropriate solution.

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