Beyond charity

Relief work | Simple design solutions are revolutionizing the undeveloped world one grateful village at a time

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

Agou Avedje, a 600-person village in the western African country of Togo, is indicative of many small communities in undeveloped parts of the world. Disease and malnutrition are endemic due to lack of sanitation and limited access to clean water.

Tragically, such problems are not primarily for lack of financial or material resources, but for lack of knowledge. The solution: simple engineering ingenuity.

The Denver Professionals Chapter of the international relief organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB) began providing such answers of design last year. A team of engineers helped the village construct a public latrine, one that uses ash from the villagers' cooking fires to block odor and speed composting. Next, the Denver chapter aims to develop systems for collecting drinking water in a community now reliant on contaminated wells and inconsistent rivers several miles away.

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But this is no classic charity case. EWB simply offers plans and education; the people of Agou Avedje make the executive decisions, provide the manpower, and even contribute financially. Denver team lead Chris Fahlin says that process of community involvement greatly increases the likelihood of a project's success: "It is possible that they can pay for these things themselves. When they do, they take ownership of it. They take responsibility for it. It's theirs."

That concept of local ownership permeates every aspect of the EWB mission. Volunteers present themselves not as rich Americans riding to the rescue of helpless people, but rather trained engineers passing along knowledge to capable communities.

EWB founder Bernard Amadei, a geotechnical engineer who went from designing large-scale dams and tunnels to simple rain-catching systems eight years ago, built the value of sustainability into his organization from its inception. "Engineers Without Borders is not charity," Amadei said during the organization's annual conference last month in Seattle. "I'm against charity. Engineers Without Borders is partnership. Take what people know and help them do it better."

That EWB is volunteer-based and without massive endowments helps ensure its partnership strategy remains consistent. The community-by-community, village-by-village approach likewise prevents the kind of waste often generated in one-size-fits-all solutions. For larger relief agencies, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the propensity to miss specific local needs is far greater (see sidebar).

EWB's Seattle conference provided ample evidence that Amadei's more organic vision of relief work holds considerable traction among young professionals and college-aged engineers. About 340 projects in 45 countries around the globe are producing precisely the kind of modest yet profound change Amadei seeks.

High-efficiency cooking stoves in Rawanda are preserving wood and limiting smoke inhalation. A replicable irrigation system in Cambodia is extending farming seasons and increasing crop yields. A spring protection box and pipeline in Honduras are supplementing the meager water supply of a trickling stream for a 46-home village.

More than 11,000 members within 271 chapters of EWB are at work on such projects, which typically range in cost between $15,000 and $35,000, according to executive director Cathy Leslie. That high impact-to-cost ratio and the immediacy of benefits to undeveloped communities appeals to the heart of what attracts many engineers to their field-namely, smart and efficient problem-solving. "We have a desire to change the world, not in 100 years, but right now," Leslie said.

In many ways, EWB is a model for effective compassion-private citizens taking initiative independent of government support. But the organization's leadership is beholden to a humanistic worldview, believing that that the removal of felt needs can clear a path to world peace.

EWB chapters in Israel and Palestinian-controlled areas have recently begun working together in hopes of modeling peace and cooperation in their region. But the significance of that partnership lessened given that both are run by Western-educated professionals.

In his speech to EWB members, Amadei showed pictures of smiling children in communities aided by EWB efforts. "All of us are called to bring smiles to faces," he said. "Believe me, if you can bring smiles like this to a refugee camp in Palestine, they won't need AK-47s. That's the picture. That's what Engineers Without Borders is all about."

The idea that clean water and decent public latrines will bring peace in the Middle East is hard to fathom. Amadei speaks of the immorality of poverty, hunger, and disease as though these problems instigate human sin rather than reflect it.

But all worldview shortcomings aside, EWB values human life, dignifies impoverished communities, and challenges individuals to express compassion. Christian engineers should fill the ranks.

The problems of big

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is difficult to criticize. Whatever faults or inefficiencies plague its inner workings seem drowned beneath a tidal wave of good. Billions of dollars have flowed from the organization to combat AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

But according to a recent Los Angeles Times investigation, the Gates Foundation often wastes exorbitant funding and human resources fighting the wrong battles to the exclusion of actual needs. The report documents cases of patients receiving free medication to fight disease only to vomit up their pills in the throes of starvation. At Gates-funded vaccination centers, workers receive instruction to ignore other ailments so as not to slow lines. And higher pay from the foundation for specialized caregivers has diverted staff from more common killers like birth sepsis, diarrhea, and asphyxia.

The problems largely stem from mass treatments to high-profile problems, which often fail to consider local realities. The near unlimited resources of the Gates Foundation generate eagerness for wide-scale and immediate results. Initiatives move forward without proper surveys or research of particular regional contexts.

Such top-down programs are antithetical to the intensely relational and localized approach of an organization like Engineers Without Borders. Nevertheless, in a keynote address to EWB's annual conference last month, Gates Foundation co-chair Bill Gates Sr. readily admitted that his organization rejects more dynamic relief campaigns in favor of predetermined initiatives: "There's a whole bunch of terrible problems in the world which we deliberately ignore."

The Times investigation confirms as much, recounting one case in which a baby born limp and barely breathing died for lack of a $35 oxygen valve in a dilapidated hospital overlooked for grant money that instead went to AIDS medication. Nurses at the facility say one or two newborns die there every day.

To its credit, the Gates Foundation is taking steps to fund smaller, more specified projects. The organization recently announced a new program dubbed Grand Challenges Explorations, which will award hundreds of $100,000 grants to agencies and individuals with good ideas over the next several years. Should an idea show early signs of success, additional funding of $1 million or more could follow.

According to Gates Sr., the Gates Foundation shares EWB's commitment to sustainable and economical relief work-the two organizations merely approach global problems with different strengths. "What's perhaps most special about you is that you aren't really special at all," he told a crowded auditorium of young engineers. "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."


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