Building Capacity

We often hear about architects working abroad but very few of them lead multidisciplinary projects in international development. Harry Wiebe, principal of Great Village International Consultants (GVIC) is currently working on the development of a project to boost the health infrastructure in Laos, a country of five million people in Southeast Asia. Trained as an architect, and possessing a professional demeanor that is well-suited to working cross-culturally, Wiebe is doing what architects are trained to do: think laterally, coordinate amongst many disciplines and improve the quality of life in the built environment. By directing a host of consultants, GVIC’s project in Laos is attempting to set in motion a feasibility study affecting the teaching and delivery of health services in Laos. Their client is the government and the GVIC team includes architects, a medical equipment specialist, an environmental specialist, a gender specialist for maternal health, and a health planning resource person. This list of consultants demands a higher level of sensitivity to project delivery methods of a more traditional nature in North America, but the foundations are similar. And while most architects are not involved in projects relating to international development, working with grassroots organizations and in developing economies offers unusual architectural and planning challenges.

As a boy growing up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba, Wiebe was first seized with wanderlust and an interest in overseas work after meeting missionaries returning from Africa. Taking a year off before finishing his architecture degree at the University of Manitoba, Wiebe worked in an architecture firm in Zimbabwe. But it was the locale, and not the work, that enthralled him. After graduation, he worked for eight years in Toronto where he cut his teeth in international development. Eventually wanting to work solely on international projects, he decided to start his own firm and in 1998, Great Village International Consultants was formed.

Around that time, Wiebe became a Project Manager Advisor on a $14 million education project in Swaziland. This choice was a conscious one: he wanted to empower the Swazi team, and thus wanted to call himself an “advisor” rather than a “manager.” His financial backer, the African Development Bank, wanted him to use the word “manager” as a means of inciting him to take full responsibility and achieve greater legitimacy for the project. The Swaziland assignment involving the improvement of infrastructure and coordination was very successful; it was what Wiebe describes as “macroarchitecture.” At this turning point in his career, he introduced the idea of pre-vocational education in a country where 16 schools essentially taught half of the high school population. The school’s new program needed to prepare those who were going off to university as well as teaching students practical hands-on skills such as how to build a house. The program involved the training of teachers, accrediting the programs, improving the general conditions and design of the teaching facilities, writing teaching manuals and polling industry to see what skills were needed to get them back into the industry in addition to building a school for the deaf. The workshops that were built in the schools were simple places of learning that would also allow the students access after school. The goal was simple, cheap and sustainable. This project gave Wiebe the confidence to focus his advisory services in two specific areas: education and training, and health services. Using a holistic approach, and one that builds upon the resources of the population, Wiebe essentially brought the issues of efficient programming, design and construction techniques into a more equitable relationship with other social and physical objectives associated with international development.

The current Laos project that GVIC is developing includes as partners: Toronto-based Planning Alliance and Ottawa-based Hickling Corporation. It involves the preparation of physical Master Plans for Mitthaphab and Mahosot Hospitals, two of the major teaching hospitals in the capital city of Vientiane. The hospital in Mitthaphab was built by the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s and already approaches a state of disrepair. The Mahosot Hospital is the oldest hospital in Vientiane, and requires infrastructure improvements to its teaching facilities. In addition to the improvements of the major hospitals, a second phase of infrastructure improvements to be funded by the World Bank is needed to upgrade the outlying provincial and district hospitals. The GVIC team would oversee the development of appropriate standard designs for the district hospitals and health centres. Other types of consultants involved on the project include an environmental standards specialist as well as a specialist to ensure that infrastructure initiatives respect gender equity. In order to receive funding on international development projects, such specialists are particularly important to meet performance crieria in the areas of physical, economic and social planning and implementation.

To source funding for projects relating to international development, Wiebe often utilizes the financial mechanisms originating out of IFIs (International Funding Institutions) which tend to place a priority on rural health care over urban issues. Both the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank are active donors in health in Laos. Through experience Wiebe is able to identify whom he needs to contact at each stage of the project. This is a difficult task, given the labyrinthine nature of IFIs. For the Laos project, funding would need to take place through a rural health mechanism and sold as a complete financing package. The Canadian International Development Agency INC. (CIDA INC.) would be the key source for funding the work by GVIC and its partners. Under the Professional Services funding mechanism offered by CIDA, 70% of the fees proposed by GVIC would be paid for by the Canadian government. The remaining 30% of the fees are supported by GVIC and its partners. The beneficiary of the project is ultimately the Laotian government who would make a contribution by supplying office space and human resources. In turn, the Canadian government hopes for “downstream benefits” that would be beneficial to Canadian business, consultants and non-profit organizations in the future. An example of downstream benefits would include a boost to companies providing medical supplies or health services in a given country. Through the Professional Services program, CIDA is investing in Wiebe’s work and vision. One of the requirements for receiving CIDA’s support is that Wiebe must report on his firm’s activities throughout and often after GVIC’s work is completed. This ensures that CIDA can gauge the success of such a financing mechanism. At the time of writing, discussions with CIDA INC. have begun, but the outcome is not yet certain.

GVIC’s proposal to upgrade the health facilities in Laos will not only include projects on infrastructure but capacity-building, which provides the necessary tools of education and basic services that will allow the Laotians to sustain the work that the GVIC team will advocate. The project will begin, hopefully, in the last quarter of 2004 and will result in a five-year project with construction reaching a peak somewhere in the middle of that period. Typical of projects of this nature, infrastructure accounts for roughly 50% of the project. The components of the project include $10-12 million of which between five and seven million will be devoted to infrastructure improvements. The length and breadth of work in Laos will require several lengthy trips for Wiebe, something he is well prepared to do. By hiring contract workers and by working out of a converted coach house in the back of his home in Toronto, Wiebe’s GVIC office infrastructure is very flexible and suited to the scheduling of his work. Despite the sacrifice of spending a lot of time away from his partner and family, Wiebe is achieving his professiona
l goals while contributing to the communities that he helps.