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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Jacob Cornelius

A soft systems analysis of poverty and energy in rural El Salvador: Exploring implications for capacity development


In the September of 2006, the author of this paper was called to be a technical advisor on an aid intervention in El Salvador.  This project, henceforth referred to as ‘the El Salvador Project,’ was initiated by a large international non-governmental organisation (NGO) .*  The project consisted of a scheme to electrify several remote communities with solar photovoltaic (PV) technology.  In these communities, it would be uneconomical for the government to extend electricity infrastructure, so some type of distributed generation was necessary for electrification.

Solar energy was chosen due to the relative prevalence of the resource, and due to donor requests. (Some donors were PV companies.)  The project was interested in electrification for both domestic and educational purposes.  In the domestic electrification scheme, each household would receive a single 80-watt panel, a charge converter, a battery and two outlets: one for a 15-watt compact fluorescent light bulb, the other for a small supplemental electronic device.  Educational plans usually consisted of providing a rural school with two panels, a battery bank, and several outlets for lights and other electronics.

While assisting with the project, the author was fortunate enough to observe several stages of project design and implementation.  Along with assisting in technical design aspects, he accompanied workers in preliminary stakeholder engagement, community mapping, system installation, and post-installation assessment.  Given this broad view an aggregate project could be assembled and analysed from start to finish.  These observations identified several areas in which improvements were possible.

Put simply, development problems were approached in compartmentalised projects which were not coordinated in any way.  In practice, issues were interrelated, but there was no coordination in approaching them, limiting the effects on any single community.  For instance, a children’s health initiative would reach one community, while a new school was built elsewhere, but the relationship between health and education was completely neglected.  A doctor’s visit once a month was not enough to teach a child about hygiene, while another child in a community 20 miles away would have her education interrupted by illness.  Issues should be addressed at a system level for maximum effect, not individually.


This paper was originally conceived as a way to use systems principles to design better development projects in El Salvador.  The pursuit of this goal, however, immediately yielded problems.  After several unsuccessful attempts to contact NGO personnel for support with this paper, it became clear that the author would be working in isolation.  Yet systems thinking is fundamentally sceptical of the potential for successful attempts at intervention driven solely by external actors.  Thus the very premise that an isolated attempt at project design could be helpful is flawed.

Therefore rather than use systems thinking to learn about development in El Salvador, this paper seeks to use the case study of Salvadoran development to explore the potential of systems thinking.  Specifically, it will use an approach typically used in business management scenarios, Soft Systems Methodology, and apply it to development interventions.  After completing a Soft Systems inquiry, this paper will draw general conclusions about the use of systems thinking in a development context.  To constrain this inquiry, systems thinking will be examined in the framework of capacity development in particular.

Paper Format

Chapter 2 lays the foundation for further discussion.  After introducing the principles of systems thinking generally, it will argue that systems thinking and capacity development are fundamentally complementary approaches that must be used in tandem.  It would be logically inconsistent to use one without the other.

The bulk of this inquiry is performed in Chapter 3, where this paper performs the steps prescribed by Soft Systems Methodology to analyse the El Salvador Project.  Although it recognises the limitations of executing this process in isolation, conclusions can be drawn about how the principles of the Methodology might be used in practice (i.e. performed in conjunction with community stakeholders).

The final chapter will investigate the implications of the Soft Systems inquiry by presenting two hypothetical projects.  It then clarifies the lessons learned from these project designs, and concludes with thoughts about the uses of systems thinking in general.