Engineers Without Borders USA alleviates poverty and fosters community development through engineering solutions. While the majority of international aid organizations focus their efforts in large population centers as a function of scale and efficiency, Engineers Without Borders USA delivers high-impact, collaborative projects within smaller communities.
From its incorporation in 2002, Engineers With Borders USA grew to a network of approximately 12,000 active members across 250 local chapters. They have completed over 100 sustainable development projects to date, with another 400 active projects in forty-five countries.
As each program involves community members, engineering students, and one or more local NGO, every completed project encourages the development of EWB-USA’s global network. This expanded reach enables constant communication of evolving best practices, increases available resources for future projects, and helps the organization connect communities with specific development needs to volunteer groups of engineers with the skills to enact sustainable solutions.
From Two Men to Twelve Thousand Members
Engineers Without Borders USA began in 2000 as a collaboration between Angel Tzec, of the Belize Ministry of Agriculture, and Professor Bernard Amadei, who taught civil engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Tzec’s home village of San Pablo was without electricity or running water, forcing the village’s children to spend a majority of their day hauling fresh water to the village. This prevented them from attending school, which in turn stagnated the community in a condition of poverty.
At Angel Tzec’s urging, Professor Amadei traveled to Belize to design a water delivery system. He returned shortly with Denis Walsh, a civil engineering expert, and volunteer team of engineering students. The volunteers constructed a clean water pumping system to deliver water to the village, sustainably powered by a nearby waterfall. Their project was inexpensive, low-tech, sustainable, and returned incredible value to the community.
Upon their return, the University of Colorado students involved in the San Pablo project formed the first student chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA. Growth was immediate and rapid; by the end of 2002, the University of Colorado chapter had 96 members involved in three projects. The following year, membership exploded to 545 members in 13 chapters, with 13 active projects in nine countries. Professional engineers took note, founding two professional chapters staffed with career engineers in 2004. This exponential increase in personnel and capability allow Engineers Without Borders to take on increasingly complex infrastructure projects.
Currently, Engineers Without Borders USA consists of a tight network of 250 local chapters with a total membership of around 12,000 student volunteers, professional engineers, and support staff. “About one-third of all EWB-USA members are professional engineers,” says Kelsey Gross, Communications Coordinator at EWB-USA. “Since our projects range from installing a water supply system to building a bridge, we welcome all engineering specialties.”
As of 2009, the organization called a temporary halt to their explosion expansion, constraining the growth of individual chapters and programs. “This allowed the organization to further develop its infrastructure to support future growth and to ensure the quality of the community development program,” explains Catherine A. Leslie (P.E, F. ASCE), Executive Director of Engineers Without Borders USA. “Since that time, we have continue to strengthen the organization, in terms of infrastructure and in terms of educational resources, and have removed that constraint.”
Collaborating for Success
Previous infrastructure development programs had a high failure rate, as a lack of resources, training or sense of ownership within subject communities failed to ensure long-term maintenance and operation of projects. Instead, the United Nations encourages cooperative development of small-scale, locally appropriate solutions tailored to be sustainable within the available resources of the specific population they serve.
“A successful approach to infrastructure considers the community’s need and desire to maintain that infrastructure,” Leslie says. “EWB-USA’s collaborative approach works to address this issue by working in a long-term community-based approach in which the community initiates, and is a full part of the any infrastructure project.”
From its foundation, Engineers Without Borders USA developed and implemented its projects as a series of small-scale infrastructure projects in the context of a larger community development program.
These programs develop as equal partnerships between the host community, Engineers Without Borders USA, and at least one local NGO. This partnership determines the needs and resources of the community, determines targets for specific infrastructure development (i.e., water filtration, more efficient stoves, sanitation, or irrigation), and collaborates to implement specific engineering projects which address each of these targets in turn.
This bottom-up collaborative approach to infrastructure development ensures sustainability through community responsibility, participation, and ownership of each project. “It is not only EWB-USA’s responsibility to listen to a community,” Leslie says, “but to design a project which meets their expressed needs and meets the community’s ability to maintain it in the future.” Where the failed approaches of previous generations sought to ‘rescue’ impoverished communities through the imposition of solutions, Engineers Without Borders USA empowers each host community to design, implement, and maintain its own infrastructure.
Part of Engineers Without Borders’ success is attributable to careful and deliberate quality control throughout a project’s lifecycle. From initial contact to execution, each stage is reviewed and analyzed to ensure community collaboration, effective design, and implementation in line with EWB-USA’s core values.
First, a community submits a program application to Engineers Without Borders, identifying their specific needs and willingness to collaborate in a development project. “Ideally, the process is initiated by community members,” says Gross. “Often, this is through another contact, such as an EWB-USA chapter member, Peace Corps Volunteer, or local NGO.”
The application allows Engineers Without Borders to measure the level of commitment and available resources a participating community brings to the collaboration. “There are many questions in the application that address issues of community ownership and to demonstrate that the project is community-driven,” Gross says. “ The community must submit a letter of support/acknowledgement to show how the community will be involved and explain why they are seeking a partnership with EWB-USA. Furthermore, they must explain what their in-kind and monetary contribution will be to the project to show their commitment.”
Following acceptance of a community’s application, an Engineers Without Borders chapter conducts an assessment trip to confirm their assessment of development priorities and determine the design parameters of potential solutions. These parameters include, but are not limited to, the level of community contribution (in terms of budget and participation), relevant cultural factors, sustainability, and the availability of local materials.
“Chapters submit pre- and post-trip reports, as well as alternative analysis and preliminary design reports throughout the lifecycle of each project within the program,” Gross says. EWB-USA Project Managers, all engineers with backgrounds in international development, review and analyze these reports, with designs subject to additional review by a Technical Advisory Committee.
This careful oversight continues through every stage of the project’s lifecycle, and continues for one year after completion, to ensure successful implementation and maintenance.
Premier Project Award Winners
Every year, Engineers Without Borders USA recognizes exemplary projects with its Premier Project Awards. Two of 2013’s winners, the Ashaiman Library in Ghana and a community well and rainwater cachement system in Lela, Kenya, are notable examples of EWB’s core values in action.
Princeton University’s EWB-USA’s Ghana School Library Project, located in Ashaiman, was developed in collaboration with several community groups and a facilitating NGO. The structure itself is made of landcrete blocks, a sustainable and locally sourced material, and the library stocked with 37 One Laptop Per Child computers and 7,000 books. To ensure the library’s continued development as a community resource, the Princeton chapter collaborated with local leadership to develop training programs for patrons, community members, and librarians.
Oregon State University’s development of a sustainable water supply in Lela, Kenya, required extensive preparation and technical expertise. Over the course of three years, the team conducted health surveys of the community, located and analyzed available water sources, GPS-mapped the surrounding area, and evaluated a number of solutions before siting a rainwater cachement and public well at the Lela Primary School. The chapter sent a team of engineering students and one technical advisor to supervise implementation of both systems in 2012.
How You Can Help
Engineers, engineering students, and community members motivated to join an active EWB-USA project can start with their local chapter. “More than 300 EWB-USA chapters span the United States, and they are comprised of devoted and focused individuals with the desire to build a better world,” Gross says. “They serve as the primary meeting place for our members, functioning as a forum to blueprint projects and fulfill EWB-USA’s mission.”
Building a better world is hard work, and Leslie cautions that involvement in EWB-USA projects is every bit as demanding as it is rewarding. “Prospective EWB-USA participants,” she says, “must prepare themselves for this type of work. They must understand community-based development, sustainability, and a commitment to the community in which they work. They must understand themselves and how they work in demanding, sometimes uncomfortable, and unfamiliar situations.”
“To best prepare, prospective participants need to fully educate themselves not only on these topics, but on the EWB-USA organization itself,” she adds, “so they understand the mission and vision of the organization, its quality control process, and its principles of development and sustainability.”
Are you an EWB-USA member? Have you participated in a successful community development project? Share your story with fellow engineers @EngineerJobs or in the comment section.