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Engineers Without Borders are Chaning the World


Engineering a Better World

This spring, EWB-USA held its 2008 International Conference (www.ewb-usa.org/ConferenceInfo.php) in Seattle. The focus was on sustainable engineering and global health, and the keynote speaker was William Gates II (Bill's dad). Gates spoke on behalf of his son and daughter-in-law's organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (www.gatesfoundation.org).

Gates shared some perspective from a Gates Foundation project in which a Nobel Laureate specializing in how people's sense of smell works was able to come up with a malaria control solution based on tricking a mosquito's sense of smell. His point was that this expert in one field applied his expertise to a seemingly unrelated problem in the developing world and—partly because this brought into play questions and thoughts that were new in that context—the result was a truly novel idea.

"There are great ideas everywhere," Gates said, "and not everyone has the resources to prove them before they get funded. That especially includes a lot of smart people in developing countries."

Many of the sessions reported on specific projects. The University of Washington chapter discussed a water supply and cook stove project in Bolivia, while other chapters reported on projects dealing with water quality in Thailand and water supply in Ethiopia. Other projects were based in Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Togo, and Peru.

But the conference also addressed practical matters like the role of women engineering leaders working in traditional cultures, determining the project the community really needs, and designing for sustainability.

The last two items are key to all EWB projects. The technology has to be what the community really needs, not what the NGO wants to implement, and the solution has to be something that locals can maintain after the team leaves—although a five-year follow-up commitment is part of every EWB project.

Talkin' About Your Generation

Gates alluded to the Bolivia project in his keynote: "The chapter from the UW has a long-standing relationship with villagers in Bolivia. You work together—on the ground in Bolivia—to understand their day-to-day problems. And then you work together on solving them.

"From my office at the Gates Foundation, I don't have the foggiest idea how to help Bolivian villagers. But when you visit Bolivia, spend time in people's homes, and feel the sting in your eyes from the stove fumes, you figure out pretty quickly that those fumes—and those stoves—are dangerous.

"And then you know that the appropriate technology is the safe, clean burning stoves you have helped them install in their homes."

Toward the end of his speech, Gates recalled the civil rights movement of the '60s and how his family would talk about civil rights around the dinner table and how the Gates children studied and debated the issues in school. He drew an analogy between the work of EWB and that movement—not so much in terms of the actions that people take or in the issues involved, but rather in the similar sense that things should not be allowed to go on this way, that something is fundamentally wrong and that some action is required of one.

And he closed like this: "I am an old man, a member of what they're now calling the Greatest Generation. But I have only just realized—toward the end of my life—how big my world is. That my world is not just my neighborhood, or my city, or my country. That the world I live in is actually as big as the world on a map.

"You are young, and you already understand how big your world is!

"In just eight years, your organization has grown exponentially. Your great generation has the energy to lead this movement, and euphoria is not too big a word to describe how it makes me feel. So all I can say to you now is thank you, and go to work."

At bottom, EWB's mission is simple, yet inspiring: Find real problems that people face, and solve them. That's what engineers do, right?

If you'd like to find out more about Engineers Without Borders, here's some contact information:

  • Engineers Without Borders USA, www.ewb-usa.org.
  • The International body, www.ewb-international.org.
  • Australia, www.ewb.org.au;
  • Canada. www.ewb.ca;
  • Quebec, www.isfq.qc.ca.


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