At the intersection of global engineering skills and local knowledge
By Rachel Dovey
August 15, 2017
Providing access to infrastructure, particularly water and sanitation services, is increasingly recognized as a key strategy in the fight against global poverty. But in many parts of the world, the technical skills needed to design and maintain these systems are lacking. Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA), an NGO made up of nearly 17,000 student and professional volunteers, partners with communities in more than 40 countries to fill this gap, with projects ranging from rainwater harvesting infrastructure in Bungwe, Rwanda to solar panels in Rampur, India.
But assembling a volunteer base for overseas work is no simple task, particularly when that work needs to be (and remain) technically sound. I spoke with Arup principal Jon Hurt, who was recently named to EWB-USA’s board of directors, about the organization’s 15-year evolution, its low-tech design philosophy, and how it stays accountable to the communities it works with.
How does EWB-USA fit into the overall ecosystem of design firms and humanitarian organizations dealing with infrastructure in the developing world?
I think it’s unique in that it’s an intersection of the engineering industry and humanitarian organizations and NGOs. It’s crossing that boundary — helping to provide resources and manage projects, which is not something that individual companies do very well because they don’t have contacts in the communities they’re working with, or an understanding of the needs of the developing world. And most design firms are for-profit, so they need some way of being reimbursed.
Also, work done by overseas organizations isn’t always appropriate for the community it’s given to — I think the figure is that 50 percent of projects fail within a few years. EWB-USA’s projects are unique and innovative in that they’re really driven by those communities and responsive to their needs. The organization isn’t trying to implement a particular technology somewhere. As with any other engineering project, the process is about finding the needs of the community and designing a solution that works.
It’s technical innovation of a different kind than you might see in the developed world, where engineers are working with very complex systems. For EWB-USA, it’s about finding something that’s simple, appropriate, and sourced from local materials.
How does EWB-USA gain that understanding of what, exactly, each community needs?
There’s an established set of steps for each project to go through, and they include an assessment visit to the community requesting assistance. At different stages in the project there are either assessment, implementation, or monitoring trips, with volunteers working alongside a local NGO and community-based organization to help define what’s really needed from a project. To maintain quality control and make sure the work being done is appropriate, expert review is built into every stage of the project process. In this respect it’s like any design office: regular reviews help you to work better and make sure that all the loose ends get tied up.
Can you tell me a little bit about your history with the organization?
EWB-USA has a corporate leadership council where representatives from different companies that support them provide advice. It’s a body that meets alongside the board, and Arup is one of the supporting companies, so I started doing that about five years ago. I’ve mostly been involved in the management and support areas — I haven’t travelled with EWB-USA — and I’ve been helping to put a new five-year strategy together.
How do you see EWB changing?
It’s fifteen years old, so it’s still relatively young, but it’s definitely maturing as an organization. There are 40+ countries around the world where EWB-USA works, and it’s moving toward a model where country offices, like its pilot offices in Nicaragua and Guatemala, provide a lot of support and assistance in terms of identifying projects, coordinating trips, and providing cultural training.
Currently, most projects start from scratch. So just as an example, buying construction materials is much more efficient for a local who might be overseeing 20 different projects nearby than for 20 different chapters outside the country all trying to organize that independently. The country office model makes the whole process more efficient and helps to use the engineering volunteers for their engineering skills.
And those volunteers provide a fantastic resource, whether they’re students or professionals. They have a lot to offer, and with so many people living in extreme poverty and lacking basic infrastructure, EWB-USA can play this really key role in bringing those two groups together and providing a service that’s improving lives.