Poverty alleviation in the remote Peruvian Andes
For hundreds of years farmers, ranchers and others living in a very remote part of the Peruvian Andes had maintained a balance with nature, existing in a very harsh environment. They had evolved a culture and ideology adapted to ensure their survival. When the industrialized world intruded upon their lives, the balance was disrupted and they fell into deep poverty. An international collaboration of governmental organizations, private companies and computer scientists initiated a project to alleviate their poverty yet permit them to retain their core values.
The people living in the villages that agreed to take part in this unusual project held a leadership role. The project was successful primarily because the outside team respected the villagers’ non Western lifestyle and culture. The computer scientists, though well versed in traditional software engineering practices, recognized the need to employ non-traditional methods at every stage of the project. They succeeded in applying the most important tenets of software engineering by adapting them to the culture of the people in the villages. In the end, the computer scientists believe they learned as much as the Andean villagers. Lives were permanently changed for everyone involved in this project.
Technically, this chapter has a strong focus on the front end of software engineering i.e. requirements gathering and specification development, and on methods of installing a computing system that would live beyond the presence of the visiting computer scientists. The chapter follows the lead of the people interviewed who continually focused on how software engineers must be willing to adapt to local custom even when it means abandoning methods accepted in the developed world. This is a profile with adventure and surprises.
Computer scientists and villagers alike agree there is far more to preparing for a culturally sensitive computing project than acquiring technical skills. Language skills are helpful but not required. What is required: Cultural sensitivity, keeping an open mind, being willing at times to go to extraordinary lengths to think creatively, to cheerfully change direction when things don’t go as planned, and be willing to listen without a personal agenda.
If you are interested in other cultures, if you want to travel as part of your work and immerse yourself in other peoples’ lives, if you consider physical and emotional challenges as learning experiences, then working on what are commonly called “development projects” may be the path for you as a computer scientist. There are endless opportunities to work with different cultures, both within your own country and outside it, using computer science to help people improve their own lives.