The world needs partnering agility & diversity

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volunteer architects

Caption: Journeyman International volunteer architects constructing a house with community builders in the Dominican Republic in 2018

We have been forced into a mindset of rethinking the concept of “normal” and embracing adaptability by the current global challenges we find ourselves in.

When aspirations for impact are constantly changing, so must the methods we use to come together in joint efforts to make the world a better place. Diversifying the partnerships that are built across industries generate the most effective solutions to the problems we face every day in both the public and private sectors. Organizations that are agile in the face of such volatility show how flexible partnership models can – and should – exist in the aid and development sectors.

One organization that exemplifies this type of diversified model, an architectural NGO called Journeyman International (JI), is fundamentally based on successful partnerships between local organizations, experts from various industries, and resourced networks in many different countries to maximize the positive impact of a resilient built environment for communities in crisis. Whether you are a funding agency, private sector business, or individual with a passion for designing and building in the humanitarian context, there are multiple ways to partner with JI and contribute to its meaningful work around the world.

As an eager, undergraduate student, I started volunteering with JI, providing affordable architectural design services to organizations around the world that are working locally to build spaces for communities in crisis. As a practitioner of architecture, privileged with the gift of university education, I have felt the need to apply my skillset where it is needed most: in the worlds of aid and development. From designing a disaster-relief facility in the Philippines as a volunteer to eventually becoming Managing Director of JI, my involvement as an architect in the aid sector has been met with a lot of scepticism due to the novelty of this disciplinary crossover.

From its operational headquarters in East Africa, the JI management team oversees the design of more than 20 projects per year in various countries and humanitarian contexts. JI projects range from educational spaces to medical clinics to orphanages and everything in between, depending on the needs of the local organizations. The aim of JI is not only to design the most resilient buildings for people in need but also to empower and train the designers (often university students and skilled architectural professionals) who are crafting the vision for each project. 

Partners of JI come in three primary forms: clients, design volunteers, and sponsors.

First of all, we refer to our clients as ‘partners’ because they are the ones doing the relief and development work on the ground in whatever country we are working. They are our partners because we rely on them to provide contextual information on local culture, resources, climate, etc. We cannot design an appropriate and sustainable building without the critical insight from our clients, and in return for their collaboration we provide architectural design documentation to support their construction of resilient structures that serve vulnerable communities. Secondly, the professionals in the architectural and construction industries who come alongside our work on a volunteer basis are our partners in design. Coming from all corners of the world, these design professionals provide insight into local cultures, traditional building methods, and materials, informing the very environmentally and culturally sensitive design projects that JI conducts in often vulnerable contexts. Finally, we have partners who provide funding towards our volunteer design program. Often, these partners are design and construction companies who share a vision for a more sustainable built environment in the developing world, providing not only finance towards JI’s project management team, but also professional support through mentorship of a design volunteer or student. This is one way that JI merges its partners together to maximize impact of each design project by benefiting the designer, the sponsor, the local experts, and the end users. Everyone wins here, but that does not mean it’s easy…

One of the biggest challenges organizations such as JI faces in putting intention to action is the toxicity of competition between industries working in partnership with aid and development agencies. This competition creates rifts where there should be collaboration – withholding of insight and inspiration for the sake of growth and control over where resources are allocated. This closed-mindedness will drive us toward stalemate instead of progress and true resiliency, preventing the less-appreciated trades from even participating in sustainable development at scale.

For example, why are NGOs still erecting tents for refugees when we know that housing solutions in camps are not temporary? Why not look at this problem through the lens of a partnership between local experts in planning, art, materials, engineering, etc. and a global design industry that can advise on the creation of a dignifying environment based on traditional building methods? We learn the most from experts of different backgrounds, so why confine our worldviews to the islands of our own industries? And why does the vast majority of funding go toward the type of interventions that are traditionally made, instead of the innovations? In order to adapt to changing global conditions, there needs to be a culture of cross-industry collaboration, open-mindedness, and motivating one another to action. 

Over the years of working to grow JI into an internationally-recognized social enterprise, I have felt the frustration of many failed attempts to work together with uninterested partners.

To the organizations who are out there laying the groundwork: be open to challenging feedback from different professions, even if that seems to compromise your perceived sense of stability. To the funding agencies and institutions who support the work of these organizations, do not underestimate the underdogs – the collection of experts that emerge from the ordinary to join forces for good.

We must all trust and believe in the power of diverse, professional aggregation towards sustainable development, and make space to collaborate without discrimination.

Carly Althoff
Carly Althoff
Managing Director at | + posts

Carly is an architect and Managing Director of Journeyman International, a volunteer-based humanitarian design organization that provides affordable architectural service to support construction efforts across the aid and development sectors in over 40 countries.

JI is a US-based charity with networks of volunteers on every continent, and its operational headquarters are in Kigali, Rwanda. JI is founded on the belief that resilient, community-based design has the power to fight poverty and mitigate crises.

After starting her architectural career in California, Carly moved to East Africa to establish a network and regional hub for humanitarian design, with the future aim to do the same in more regions around the world.

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