Canadian Consulting Engineer

A Better World

Running a busy consulting practice was not enough for Bill Ainley, P.Eng.After seeing the cruel effects of the great Ethiopian famine of 1984 broadcast on television, Ainley knew he had to do somethin...

January 1, 2004   By Bronwen Parsons

Running a busy consulting practice was not enough for Bill Ainley, P.Eng.

After seeing the cruel effects of the great Ethiopian famine of 1984 broadcast on television, Ainley knew he had to do something to help. “People were trekking in from Sudan; they had terrible pictures of people literally dropping as they came in,” he remembers.

Ainley contacted the Canadian International Development Agency, who in turn put him in touch with Hope International, a Vancouver-based aid organization. The agency was looking for someone to manage a program to dig wells and deliver clean water in the drought-stricken east African country. In 1987, Ainley, together with wife Trudy, flew out on his first volunteer assignment in the Third World.

“We had a large rotary drilling rig,” Ainley recalls. “It had been donated by someone from western Canada. We had a Canadian well driller, and a crew of Ethiopians. But they had to have someone to manage the project, which meant dealing with the communist government of Ethiopia and the local people….. They felt I’d be reasonable good at that.”

When Ainley won the Beaubien Award for individual achievement from the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada last fall, the citations mentioned his business courage, and his contributions to the consulting industry and to his local community. Ainley came to Canada from Yorkshire, England in the 1950s and set up a practice in Collingwood, Ontario. The Ainley Group now has more than 100 staff and has been especially innovative in the water and wastewater sectors. It introduced to Ontario the first municipal membrane water treatment system, for example, and the first municipal sequential batch reactor sewage treatment plant.

But Ainley brought special gifts to his volunteer work in the Third World: a knack for dealing with people. In the award citations, David McKenzie, Hope International’s executive director, writes: “Bill Ainley has been an invaluable asset to Hope International’s work with the poorest of the poor, not only providing his extensive engineering experience, but also in providing leadership and management skills. He is an outstanding negotiator…. Bill Ainley is an encouragement and model for all in making our world a better place.”

Ainley’s team dug 32 new water wells on that first year-long visit to Ethiopia. From their base in a town called Awassa, 150 kilometres south of Addis Ababa, they travelled down the Great Rift Valley into drought regions, picking well sites from a list supplied by CIDA and the Ethiopian government.

Ainley found himself dealing with two very different groups. First he had to pacify the government bureaucrats who were anxious to hold meetings and see statistics: “We’d have to make presentations to the Communists, so we’d go up to Addis Ababa about once every month,” he recalls. “The only way to make them happy was to show them graphs. They’d really support you then.”

But he seems to feel more at home when talking and listening to the local villagers. He rediscovered the oldest graphic tools: “You do a lot of explaining in the sand, instead of using paper. You show exactly where you want to dig the well, and explain how the water will come out a different colour at first. You show the location for the storage tank and the banks of taps. Once you explain, then the villagers — men and women — become really enthusiastic.”

Since his Ethiopian adventures, Ainley has volunteered for Hope International in other countries like Cambodia, Pakistan and Lebanon.

Asked what he thinks about his communication gifts,” Ainley says: “I would say negotiation is going back to basics: everyone’s equal. If you start off that way, then you’re on the right tack.”


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