Construction as an instrument of development cooperation

Construction in development cooperation cannot have a real impact unless it is accompanied by a robust network that provides functional content for the project and ensures its continuity. Construction projects must always be based on clearly identified needs and goals. For a project to be successful, it must be able to network with NGOs and secure commitment from local actors. A properly planned, designed and implemented project is a progressive force that benefits the entire community.


Participatory planning process

Successful development projects have generally been able to secure the commitment of the target group at an early stage. Without an atmosphere of proprietorship and opportunities for participation, the members of the community feel excluded and do not feel they can have a say in the matter. Participatory planning considerably improves the chances of success of a project when the community feels it is involved in the project. People's self-esteem grows when they see that they too can be proactive participants and influence the development of their own environment.

The planning process is an interactive event where all participants learn from one another. The work demands personal commitment on the part of the planners; the degree of commitment among the target group members is usually directly proportional. For interaction to be real, planners must be able to be present much of the time; this calls for sufficient resources for planning.


Culturally specific planning

The language of architecture is not the same everywhere; it stems from and is bound to local conditions. Factors underlying architectural planning include the distinctive features of the culture and the built heritage, climate, era, local resources, community structure, degree of urbanisation, economic structure, art and gender equality. These things all affect the ways in which people use space and how spatial hierarchies are formed. When the hierarchy of architecture adapts itself to the local tradition, the constructed environment becomes familiar, regardless of the materials or architectural vocabulary. Architecture grows most naturally from familiarity with local culture and an understanding of local spatial thinking.

Contact with the built heritage is often severed in contemporary societies, and construction is a skill mastered only rarely by non-professionals. Our society is divided into specialists, and this also applies to the field of construction and planning, and architecture is no longer created without specialised knowledge and skill. Specialisation and higher education can sometimes have absurd consequences: it is frequently observed in development cooperation that educated locals are usually alienated from the circumstances of the poorest section of the population. This is reflected in a tendency to design symbols of wealth, shopping malls and luxury villas, while the impoverished majority live in deteriorating conditions. There are of course exceptions to this.

The structure of society in the Nordic countries is relatively egalitarian. This makes it easier for the educated planner to perceive the essential, positive characteristics of the local built heritage and then re-present them to the community. An external observer is free from the baggage of local social ties and is therefore sometimes able to see more acutely the pertinent factors that must be considered in planning. An outsider can sometimes find it easier also to renew or avoid practices that do not contribute to favourable social development, and to promote good and healthy modes of construction.

From the viewpoint of development cooperation, it is also necessary to know about any other ongoing projects to avoid overlap or conflicts.


Ecology and the environment

Ecology is a vital aspect of construction; a responsible planner must take environmental aspects into consideration throughout the life cycle of the building project. Projects that are based from the outset on the principles of sustainable development are particularly important in the developing countries. Local building materials, use of low-tech solutions and renewable energy in maintenance, recycling, waste management and ecological sanitation must be integrated into the project in a way that is culturally acceptable and locally implementable. The planner must be able to present simple solutions as a positive value that brings clarity to the project, not as an indication of a lack of resources.

Recycling construction materials is a challenging task since there is not necessarily very much material that can be recycled. However, new, architecturally innovative solutions can bring significant savings in resources locally or alternatively introduce new ways of using existing materials.

Sanitation is an area where cultural factors must be taken into account in technical solutions. A toilet is never merely a technical problem; it invariably carries powerful cultural meanings that must be considered in planning. If the solution adopted in the project is new for the local community, sufficient resources must be reserved for familiarising the end-users with it.


Management of the construction process and local skills

Development projects sometimes arrive at a situation where the actions of the local authorities are not in line with the interests of the community. Planners must be able to identify and prevent any situations of bribery that may arise during the planning and implementation of the project. Communication with the authorities as well as with all other actors in the project must be open, efficient and avoid all political engagement. It is possible in development projects to adhere to the Finnish model of direct and open communication and interaction, but it requires persistence and vigilance, directness and integrity. The selection of partners, such as engineers and contractors, should be done very carefully; finding reliable partners is a major factor in securing the success of a project.

Proper management of the construction process sets an example also for local actors. A responsible building project can therefore contribute to the attainment of the fundamental goal of development cooperation: disseminating knowledge and expertise. Transfer of knowledge is always reciprocal: the local planner is usually the best expert on important issues, as long as they are formulated properly. The utilisation of local special expertise needed in construction is vital, as the use of a local workforce further strengthens the commitment of the community to the project.


Women's position and equality

Improving the status of women has proved to be one of the most efficient ways of mitigating poverty in development cooperation. Support for women and girls is an investment in the future, one that in the long term will benefit the entire community. Providing more and better education and strengthening the reference group can give young women the tools they need to survive, and which they will pass on to their own children.

Ukumbi ry is dedicated to strengthening the status of women. In our work we have observed the great potential impact that a well-planned and well-implemented construction project can have on the self-esteem of women and the welfare of the entire community. Adequate facilities can secure the continuity of well-organised activities and thereby create the necessary conditions for mitigating poverty. Women are powerful actors in society, even when their culture does not allow them to openly assume the position of social activism. Ukumbi ry is dedicated to raising the visibility of women's actions.


Architecture - a basic human necessity

A good environment is a basic human necessity, one which all people should have the right to, regardless of their economic, social or political position. High-quality planning and design can be used to create ecological, environmentally conscious architecture that adapts to the local culture. Architecture can be used to improve the quality of life, the conviviality of society and communities, and contribute to the formation of self-esteem and identity. At best, architecture can create the hope that is needed for a better life.