Cover image courtesy of EWB-USA University of Delaware Chapter
–by Heather Legan and Octavio Serrano–
At a glance, Engineers Without Borders (henceforth EWB) seems like an organization with the potential to do a lot of good. They want to build “a better world through engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges” (Engineers Without Borders – USA). This article seeks to determine if EWB lives up to their mission statement and empowers the communities they work with in Africa, or if they actually only empower students that seek resume padding and universities seeking donations and good PR. It will also analyze if EWB’s efforts are an efficient use of resources along with the economic impacts that come with maintaining its projects, or if the criticisms of these kinds of organizations are true and communities find themselves harmed by EWB’s projects due to the use of foreign labor and unskilled workers. This will be accomplished through a thorough examination of intentions, methods, and impacts by EWB and its members, and through the use of sources from the perspective of both the humanitarians and the beneficiaries. Agency of the beneficiaries will also be considered, as well as whether it is being respected or utilized in improving the overall quality of life in African nations.
Engineers Without Borders is an international organization that provides engineering services to communities around the world in need. They pair college student chapters with projects in locales like Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and other similar regions. These communities receive aid in the form of engineering projects that benefit the all of its citizens, such as functional wells, crop irrigation systems, and energy generation devices. In return, EWB members gain valuable real-world engineering experience as well as cultural enrichment, and their universities gain a better public image. As an NGO that operates in Africa, it is important to evaluate the potential negative impacts that EWB makes in these communities, and to determine if the underlying incentives for this type of work overshadow the aid it provides. It is also important to consider if the agency of these local communities is being respected throughout the project duration. Through examination of EWB’s impact on universities, student engineers, as well as EWB’s own statistics on project success and maintenance, this article will determine if EWB’s main goal is to provide good PR and resume fodder without regard for the economic burden they place on these communities from poorly implemented or incomplete projects. Ultimately the finding is that PR and resume fodder incentives do exist, they are potentially the primary motivators for universities that establish EWB chapters and students who participate, especially since so many of their projects fail in the long run. However, the authors found the EWB does respect local agency by putting in a lot of work to determine if a community’s ability to sustain a project.
Engineers Without Borders as a University Administrator’s Best Friend
EWB offers an exciting opportunity for engineering students to get real-world experience completing meaningful projects; however, this section seeks to determine if the resume padding opportunities and other benefits to universities are truly the main motivation behind EWB student chapters.
There has been recent criticism that engineering courses at universities do not provide enough real-world, hands-on experience for students to learn what engineers really do. Experiential learning opportunities like EWB provide one possible avenue for graduates to gain this experience (Luzzi, 2010). The faculty advisor for EWB at the University of Delaware, Steven Dentel, found that his chapter has many students that are highly motivated to be involved, and not just the students travelling to Africa. Additionally, in an editorial in the journal Water Environment Research, Dentel speaks of explosive growth for EWB student chapters across the country, with 230 such chapters forming in the six years prior to 2008. Dentel believes that this growth is because EWB is able to fill a void that universities aren’t doing on their own. Dentel attributes the success of EWB to the fact that it allows students to make a positive difference; however, he acknowledges that the organization also allows students to gain hands-on experiences that can’t be found in the classroom (Dentel, 2008). These hands-on experiences can be used by students as talking points in interviews and as line items on resumes. In reality, it seems that students’ primary motivation is to gain stories to use as answers to tough interview questions rather than to first and foremost make a positive difference.
Looking more closely at EWB at the University of Delaware, the student chapter does appear to do what it sets out to do. The blog for the student chapter relays information about projects that were completed in Cameroon, complete with many stories about technical challenges that were encountered (Engineers Without Borders – University of Delaware Student Chapter). These technical challenges and the stories about them will make good stories for job interviews. The importance placed on these stories in the blog would suggest that accumulating stories about technical challenges is a motivating factor behind students joining EWB. It is important to note; however, that local people were involved in the projects. Olivia Mukam-Wandji, a Cameroon native, relays in her blog the process that she had to go through to get the student chapter to help out her local community. According to her blog, the local communities in need of an engineering solution must submit a project proposal to an EWB chapter (Mukam-Wandji, 2013). This process gives the local people agency because they must actually request the aid. Additionally, many of the blog posts on the Delaware chapter website have pictures of local officials, and anecdotes about collaborations with them. These local officials include the mayor of the village they were working in, as well as the chief of the local tribe (Engineers Without Borders – University of Delaware Student Chapter). So while it may be fair to claim that the primary motivation may be resume padding, it is important to note that these organizations do actively involve local people, giving them agency in an attempt to do the most good.
Several universities have incorporated EWB into some kind of humanitarian engineering program. One example is Colorado School of Mines. They have incorporated two different minors into their humanitarian engineering program, and they also have an EWB chapter called Mines Without Borders. On the website for their humanitarian engineering program, Mines claims that this program allows them to bring world-class speakers to the university’s campus. On April 28, 2018, their website also boasted of a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation that professors in the program had been awarded to make artisanal gold mining more sustainable. This large grant, and the world class speakers, make the university look better, which should improve its rankings and also help it to bring in more donations. In fact, further down the page, the program asks for donations to support the program and engineers at Mines (Colorado School of Mines, 2018). This would suggest that harnessing the image of humanitarian engineering and EWB is beneficial for the university, as it allows them to bring in speakers, grants and donations. These financial and PR benefits are definitely important, and are probably primary motivations behind schools starting EWB chapters. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the university doesn’t also want to help people and produce graduates that are truly in a position to consider the agency of local people while carrying out engineering projects. But it would suggest that their primary motivation might not be the people being helped by their chapter of EWB. Instead, the primary motivation is likely the positive image that this program gives their university, as well as the financial benefits that it provides.
EWB Project Success Statistics
It is important to consider both the short term and long term economic impact that EWB makes with any given project. To better understand this, one must look at the process EWB goes through for its selecting, assignment, and executing phases. To become an official EWB project, a community must submit an application for review by EWB’s application review committee. EWB’s Tim Ager, who serves on this committee states that “there is rarely any doubt of the need for assistance, but sometimes the application does not convey that the community as a whole is interested in the project or that everyone in the community will benefit from the project”. He also states that some projects are rejected due to “concerns about a community’s organizational and/or financial ability to carry out future operations and management responsibilities.” (Ager 2015). Once an application is approved, EWB selects a college chapter to make a trip to the community to do more thorough evaluation. This evaluation can range from determining the level of support from in-country organizations to doing interviews with locals to show their level of commitment to the long-term sustainment of the project. Once a chapter is satisfied, they then create a budget and receive funding from EWB and travel to the community once more to execute the project. This step varies greatly depending on the community and project goals, but usually follows the framework of: delivery of materials, task allocation, milestone evaluations, completion, and finally handover. This process of having the community submit the application, having an EWB chapter evaluate it in person, and then having the EWB chapter complete the project in a subsequent trip demonstrates that EWB puts a lot of effort into ensuring that projects are being completed in communities with a vested interest, and to some degree, confirm their ability to sustain the project.
EWB does a continual evaluation of its current and completed projects and provides statistics on its website. Currently, EWB states that nearly 25% of its completed projects are nonfunctional. Of the functional projects, another 25% exist in a community that has been deemed to be incapable of sustaining the project, even though the chapter initially deemed the community capable of doing so. This results in one third of functional projects not receiving proper maintenance and becoming nonfunctional over time.Combined, this means that only half of all projects can be considered successful. While this rate of success would be considered unacceptable in most industries, it seems to be completely justified in a third-world setting as long as the intentions are good. EWB is respecting the agency of these communities through their application process but they are failing in terms of how effective their members are in assessing and executing their designs. Part of this is likely due to the naivete of the EWB members involved. Most engineering students have plenty of technical knowledge, but lack in experience. Ironically, this lack in experience is one of the main reasons to join EWB according to Boston University (Engineers Without Borders at Boston University). At only a 50% success rate, EWB’s economic impact comes into question. At an operating budget of nearly 9 million in the past year (Engineers Without Borders USA. “Financials.”), it is not difficult to estimate how much money is lost on these failed projects. If we assume that there is no relationship between the money budgeted for a particular project and its success, about 4.5 million dollars are being wasted for the sake of giving student experience. If there is a relationship, then that results in a new problem where budgeting isn’t being done properly and is hurting those communities. It is not difficult to imagine how much these lost investments could help if they were allocated effectively. From the community’s point of view, there is a definite drain on resources in maintaining projects. In the case of nonfunctional projects and projects that can’t be maintained, every expense made by African communities is wasted. Oftentimes this waste is unavoidable due agreements the community makes with EWB upon agreeing to receive aid. The 903 – Implementation Agreement stipulates that the community must “Commit (XX – number) workers for (XX – number) hours per day for (XX – number) days for project maintenance” and to “Pay for 100% of the costs to operate and maintain the project, (project title). This cost is estimated to be (XX) per year, local currency.” (“Resources.” EWB USA). These stipulations exist regardless of whether the project is designed as functional, as is likely put in place to make up for shortcomings made in the construction phase to make EWB look more effective than they actually are. In EWB’s defense, the community is made aware of these terms before any work is done, but it is likely that they may not fully understand what they are agreeing to, and the local economy suffers from the burden of maintaining these ineffective projects.
The leadership at EWB is highly aware of the importance of community engagement and local agency in the creation of successful projects to avoid toxic charity. Peter Waugh, the Domestic Programs Director, wrote a 2014 blog on the EWB site that highlights the importance of not becoming a toxic charity. He also explains that EWB is not a toxic charity because it has measures in place, such as cash contribution requirements, project vetting, and community agreements, that help EWB to select projects that will truly benefit communities. In addition, he encourages members of EWB to read the book Toxic Charity and take its message to heart so that members can better serve the communities they are involved in (Waugh, 2014). A 2017 blog post on the EWB site discusses the importance of community involvement. The post makes the distinction between providing engineering solutions for a community and having these solutions be driven by the community. In the post, EWB makes it clear that they feel having community driven projects is important for the future success of the projects. They emphasize the fact that no two communities are the same, and that in order for projects to be more than just a short term bandage they must be something other than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution (Engineers Without Borders USA, 2017). Although EWB does not call this community engagement ‘agency’, it is very clear that they value the input of local people when they are developing projects.
Through examination of EWB’s impact on universities and university students, as well as a thorough examination of EWB’s website, blogs, project financials, and project success statistics, it is clear that EWB respects local agency and encourages community involvement in their projects. However, it is also clear that EWB is providing students and universities with resume fodder and good PR, and these additional motivations could ultimately be impacting the success of their projects, of which only about 50% are successful in the long term. While EWB’s projects have the potential to really help local communities, it is important that chapters and the organization as a whole continue to evaluate their motivations. Chapters that find that their primary motivations are resume fodder and good PR will need to work to realign these motivations to match those of the local community to ensure long term project successes.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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