Which Morals Matter More? Design and Research in the Okavango Delta

When the chips are down, will you make the right ethical decisions?

I thought I would. I trained from the foremost experts in design thinking and interdisciplinary qualitative research practice and prepared with generations of deep thinkers in development and design ethics. All it took, however, was some crop-destroying porcupines to question my motives.

What do I mean? Come find out, by traveling with me to the northern border of Botswana.

that’s me, on the left. come shell some corn with me.

As the first part of my dissertation research in Botswana, I had the opportunity to be a part of a short design workshop in the Okavango Delta, the far north of the country. Ecoexist, the host of the workshop, proclaims 15,000 elephants compete with 15,000 people for resources in an area roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park.

Seronga is close to a Wildlife Management Area, and due to this, there are common agricultural crop damages and livestock death caused by elephants of the delta. Run by the esteemed International Development Innovation Network, the workshop was designed to make community-designed human-elephant conflict solutions, like chilli dung burners whose smoke keeps elephants at bay. If development experts, community leaders, and university students could develop designs make designs there to address some problems, then the tools could be spread anywhere in the country who deal with the same problems.

EcoExist members in Seronga, during the design summit.

Because I had arrived a bit later than expected, the teams had been chosen, and I had to decide if I would join a project or stay back and observe the total workshop. At the time, staying back made sense; by floating to and from different teams, I wouldn’t infringe on any existing team dynamics; and I could learn from all the team activities at once. However, events during the workshop made me question if this was the right decision.

One team was working to develop a chicken wire fence technology. One of the villagers’ plants were being destroyed and eaten by porcupines and was persistent enough to make her problems a workshop priority. So, the team came up with a solution where they intended to buy chicken wire and then bury it under the ground. If the chicken wire is buried far enough below ground, rodents cannot successfully break through to burrow under the fence.

However, the villager objected; she said she had tried this before, and the fence had broken down in the Okavango soil over a few years of exposure. But, the villager couldn’t speak English well, and failed to explain why the technology didn’t work. Regardless, her American teammates decided to progress with the project. As a floating researcher, however, I could ask other teams of farmers whether the fence would work. They explained that the Okavango River’s salt and other mineral deposits were deeply ingrained in the soil chemistry, and over the many years the intervention would have to last, the chicken wire would eventually break down.

This, however, is where I paused.

As a potential participant, my input might help this team develop a technology that would work better. I also knew I would be listened to more intently, as a researcher and American.

However, I started this workshop separate from any single team to benefit my research.

Moreover, if I involved myself too much with this issue, it might keep me from collecting the data I intended to collect during the workshop. By refraining from direct involvement, I could catch more diverse information from each team, watch dynamics as they unfolded and reflect on them instead of becoming a part of them by interacting.

But, were my research principles more important than wasted time, a potentially failed design, and a villager with a sour experience with this summit and its methods?

However, I didn’t even know if my insights would help. This team had been working on the problem nonstop for five days, and they might have had further expertise on why the solution would have worked.

Was I even sure I had the whole story right?

Would they even accept what I had to say?

don’t sniff too hard. you’ll regret it.

Two stances are in conflict here. Which morals matter more: those of a researcher, or those of a designer? Do I report this issue to influence the summit and the further development of a potentially failed technological intervention, or do I back off and report the dynamics as a point of concern while letting the experience play out?

By the time I could decide, it was too late to change the project the team was developing. Should I have asked the design team why they thought the fence would last? Should I have latched onto the team more, to ensure the project would become more successful? Though I’m not sure more involvement would have solved the problem, I had to cross my fingers and hope for the best for everyone involved.

What I could do, however, is offer the story so others can reflect on its insights. There are no ‘flies on the wall’ during a design project; participants can never be entirely separate from the community they’re working with. In a different context, with a different researcher, and while solving a separate issue, not intervening might have been the correct decision. What matters, however, is we learn why we need to be adaptable in these situations. With more tools in our toolbox, we can better maneuver complex situations like these when they arise.

Glad you made it this far. More stories are to come.

I’m a researcher who finished his Ph.D. looking at the emerging innovation community in Botswana. It covers a wide berth: evaluation, culture, institutions, indigenous history, and obviously, ethics. If you’re interested in the rest of my research in the country, the dissertation is available here. I’d love to hear what you like; get back to me at @piercegordon1.

Now, let’s hear from you.

Was it a better decision to stay away, or get involved?

Have you been in similar situations?

What other ethics issues are important to consider during design and research projects?

I’d love to hear from you. I’m available at @piercegordon1 on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I can’t wait to hear what you’ve learned.