Canadian Consulting Engineer

Technology not the only answer, say debaters at Engineers Without Borders event

Last week Engineers Without Borders successfully orchestrated its 10th annual conference at the Allstream Centre in Toronto. Hatch and TetraTech were sponsors of the event, which drew 1,000 delegates and scores of speakers from across the...

January 17, 2011   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Last week Engineers Without Borders successfully orchestrated its 10th annual conference at the Allstream Centre in Toronto. Hatch and TetraTech were sponsors of the event, which drew 1,000 delegates and scores of speakers from across the country.

From a team of two, when George Roter and Parker Mitchell launched Engineers Without Borders Canada in Waterloo, Ontario back in 2000, the organization has grown into a phenomenon. It has 25 full time staff, claims 10,000 volunteers in Canada and has 34 chapters.

EWB is now focusing on rural Africa. In 2009 they burned their mission statement “promoting human development through access to technology.” Instead they say they are now “bringing our problem-solving approach to address not the symptoms, but the underlying systemic causes that are holding back African prosperity.” 

The students, academics and young 20-somethings that constitute the backbone of EWB crowded into the room for a debate entitled “Engineering for the Other 90%,” which was held late Friday afternoon.

Not that this was your usual debate that has one resolution clearly accepted or rejected by the end.  Instead, the audience was given two resolutions and four speakers from various positions. Using their cell phones, the audience was invited to plot their opinions throughout the debate on a quadrant that was displayed on a screen. They were to rest assured, said the moderator, that there is no right or wrong answer.

The two resolutions were displayed on two axes. The first was straightforward: “Be it resolved that engineering design and invention is the best way for western engineers to help individuals in the developing world.”

The second resolution, according to the organizers, was intended to add complexity by considering how the technology is delivered: “Be it resolved that these individuals are best served as savvy customers in an untapped market, rather than as recipients of planned aid.”

It was a complex set-up that called for complex ideas, and the event certainly delivered. It was difficult to work out any clear directions or resolutions, but one could detect the familiar arguments:  Is it better for western and developed nations to deliver top down aid in the form of engineering, technology and infrastructure as used to happen? Or is the more recent hands-off approach of providing aid at the grass roots level working better?

The speakers all had experience of working on EWB projects and all had first-hand experience of aid projects gone wrong — not so much at the large scale, but at the small scale — such as problems with donated cook stoves, pedal power machines, and solar ovens, which for one reason or another weren’t working or being used – even though “researchers in universities love these things.”

All agreed on the necessity for governments and aid organizations to recognize the dignity and potential of the aid recipients. We heard of frustrations with officials who have preset programming priorities that don’t meet the needs of the community. Jen Hiscock, for example, recalled  being in one town where government aid officials came in and insisted on providing market stalls because that year the departmental policy had made “food security” the priority. In fact, what the villagers needed — and had asked for in a stakeholder meeting — was a school. The town happily accepted the market stalls and soon resourcefully proceeded to use the materials to build a school.

Another speaker, Andrew Lamb of EWB in the United Kingdom, made a clear point in favour of building large scale infrastructure with government help. He pointed out that in a city like Nairobi there are districts that have 18,000 people per square kilometre living here, yet no infrastructure. It was “insane,” he said. He pointed out that his own city, London, was once a terrible slum in the 1850s, with raw sewage filling the streets and cholera outbreaks. It wasn’t until raw sewage overflowed from the Thames into the Houses of Parliament that the government decided to intervene. They imposed a penny tax, used it to enclose  rivers, and had solved the problem “in a few years.”

Market forces didn’t solve the problem in London, Lamb said. Engineers solved it with good design and a planned project. He concluded that there is a need for building this type of infrastructure in the developing world, where the vast needs are way beyond the capacity of markets.

John Paul Portelli argued that engineers need to take a wider view, because improvements in technology alone don’t make a difference. Other issues at play include financing, education, negotiation and distribution. “When your mandate is technical, all of a sudden every answer is technical,” but in fact that solution is ignoring huge other issues, he said.

Cathy Leslie of EWB-USA summed up the balanced position that most of the debaters seem to subscribe to. She said technology at both a large and a small scale has its place, so “the best is a marriage of the two.” And, she said, the aid must be tempered by knowing how to work with communities and recognizing that the aid recipients have a lot of knowledge.

At the end of the debate there was no vote — only a request for a show of hands from those who had seen their own position change somewhat during the debate. About half the audience of 200 people raised their hands.

Clearly this was all part of EWB’s game plan. EWB is a decidedly post-modern organization working in a post-modern world where opinions cannot be fixed, and where there can be no straightforward engineering answers to human problems. According to EWB’s website, development efforts must work “through ambiguity, balancing multiple tensions simultaneously and knowing that attribution will be difficult, if not impossible.”


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