International Development Researcher and Author from Vancouver, Canada

Motivation, ambition and fierce perseverance describe Duncan McNicholl (Antarctic 2003) and his approach to his international development work and personal growth. With over 5 years of experience throughout Africa, Asia and South America, his research and mentorship is setting a new precedent for how we look at the systems that support the essential services of the world, but also what we can learn about ourselves along the way. He is currently working on his PhD with the Cambridge University Centre for Sustainable Development from his home in the United Kingdom.

The Expedition Experience

Duncan’s Antarctic expedition was one of the biggest things he had done at his age. On of his most vivid memories was being awoken one morning by the lurch of the ship stuck in pack ice. Looking out the porthole he described it as a “Moonscape. White as far as you could see in every direction.” This unique isolation, made Duncan look objectively at human history and achievement – but also his role within it all.

Realizing Goals & Ambitions

The authenticity of Duncan’s polar experiences made him realize the potential he had to be a force for change. “I remember thinking I can work to be here, but I can also work to participate in truly global issues”. Through chance circumstances in his engineering degree, he landed into the world of water security. Using the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a framework, his work is part of a movement to have global universal access to clean water by 2030. His education and international work now totals over 15 years of experience, which Duncan hopes places him as a “niche world expert” in the world of water security and delivery.

"There is a lot of cynicism in development. It can be discouraging because you realize how many problems there are and how complex they are. But the challenge becomes to persevere. To not give up. Be fiercely critical, and persevere."

Making A Difference

What first began with water pumps, has since evolved into a complex analysis of community structure. Duncan’s research is very hands-on, and can be quite visual when mapped on paper. “You can have a lot of people who are trying to do things.” With all of the functioning relationships documented, the real work of manipulating, analyzing and drawing insight can begin. He says the patterns that emerge from his findings are similar all over the world, like in the Arctic. One discovery is the need to ensure strong connections between key stakeholders: “If you find someone who plays an important role but they are an island, they probably aren’t getting better over time”.

Looking Ahead

Duncan reflects on a question posed during his Antarctic expedition: “You’re the next generation. What do you do about this?”. It echoes a similar sentiment he felt early in his own career which was made more difficult by the lack of resources available. Motivated to help new change-makers succeed, he created Volunteer Voicesa collection of short stories that navigates the personal and professional challenges of development work and gives the readers the tools to become good problem solvers. He says the book is great for someone coming out of the SOI program saying “Wow, I am really motivated and energized, what next?”. Duncan looks forward to completing his PhD research as well as an upcoming move and marriage this summer.

"The tragedy would be that if the people who were critical, give up because they see how hard it is, or if the people who don’t see how hard it is persevere. Both options are not good enough. That's the time when you recognize what's next, move forward and still try to create value."