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Engineers Without Borders

by Archives October 11, 2006

When Parker Mitchell and George Roter started Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in 2000, they only expected a handful of engineers to be interested in their idea. Mitchell said he never thought they plan they hatched could grow this big.

In six short years, EWB has become such a phenomenon that almost 20,000 engineers, both students and professionals, have joined the 28 chapters across Canada.

“It would have been daunting if we had known,” Mitchell said in an interview with The Concordian, just before he spoke to Concordia’s EWB chapter last Tuesday.

The idea for the organization was inspired by the Millenium Development Goals’s pledge in 2000 of halving world poverty by 2015. The two friends started to brainstorm together how they and other engineers might be able to contribute.

Today, EWB’s mission is to provide access to technology that will help developing communities lift themselves out of poverty. As opposed to providing short-term aid, the organization aims to foster long-term development.

Their overseas volunteer program has sent some 200 volunteers, mostly to Africa, on placements ranging from four months to two years. Each four-month term costs approximately $5,000, funded mostly by the head office through donations.

The volunteers work towards making the community’s technical sector more efficient and technologies more accessible. They analyze the systems already in place and seek to improve the process or solve what goes wrong.

For example, EWB volunteers in Zambia hold treadle-pump workshops to show farmers how to irrigate their fields more efficiently. Or they can be found in Mali, teaching women to work a multifunctional platform (MFP). This little 10 h.p. engine can power various machinery such as a corn mill or oil press, drive an alternator to charge batteries and power a water pump.

Being a part of these practical solutions is second nature to engineers.

Even non-engineers have enthusiastically jumped on the treadle-pump, so to speak. The combination of a passion to better others’ lives and the typical pragmatism of engineers has drawn volunteers that end up pursuing a career in engineering.

Mitchell was in town last week to meet with the Montreal chapters and visited Concordia’s EWB chapter on Oct. 2. Every year, Mitchell and Roter travel to every EWB chapter to share stories that will hopefully inspire.

“There are enough stories of things that don’t work,” said Mitchell, “disasters and chaos on T.V., in the news and the newspapers. We want to share stories of things that do work.”

He said their goal is to bring up a generation of leaders, teaching them through personal mentorship what it means to be an agent for change. He believes this generation is “genuinely able to imagine a world without extreme poverty [because] we are more democratized, have more avenues of aid then ever before.”

He challenges his fellow engineers to look at the flip side of things. Instead of asking, ‘What can I do?’ he tells them to ask themselves, ‘What do communities need?’ and then to go do that.

One of his essential values that he tries to pass on people is the self-critical analysis. He said that engineers are always analyzing their work to further improve it.

Mitchell said he realized the organization was working the way they had envisioned when, visiting a farmer in South Uganda, he overheard him explaining to two neighbours how his treadle pump worked. The EWB volunteer had given the first 20 pumps out to the farmers and then worked with the manufacturers to bring to cost down. Now the recipient of this basic technology was teaching his peers how to use it.

The technology that EWB uses might be simple, but perhaps because of its simplicity, is being used to great success in Sub-Saharan and African countries. For example, the treadle pump was invented in the late 1970s by Norwegian engineer Gunnar Barnes. It wouldn’t be found today in a big box hardware store, but it’s the cheapest pump available, requires no fuel and can irrigate a field three times faster than by hand.

They have no need to “re-invent the wheel,” Mitchell said. “There’s enough technology out there, it needs to be implemented and diffused to the people who need it.”

But it’s more drudgery than glory.

“We are more like the people that strung wire across Canada for electricity,” he said, “rather than like a Thomas Edison, inventing devices.”

It’s a good analogy, because they appear to be focussed straight ahead. “We’re going to get this [organization] right. We want it to be the model that, 20 years from now, other groups will follow.”

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