Scitech | Effective aid overseas

Engineers Without Borders stresses importance of sustained volunteer projects

This summer, McGill’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) will be sending three junior fellows (JFs) to work on development projects in rural African communities. Almost 40 JFs from across Canada will participate in the program, along with EWB’s 33 long-term volunteers stationed in several countries in southern and western Africa. Placements with partner organizations are chosen based on the projects’ long-term sustainability and capacity to meet the local population’s needs.

Armed with a rather large information package and a week of pre-departure training in Toronto, the JFs are also mentored by the previous year’s participants on everything from cultural differences to the basic principles of agriculture. JFs gain first-hand experience and feedback on the types of development efforts that are successful.

A panel discussion presented by EWB on March 11 brought together two prominent members of the international development community to discuss exactly why some projects succeed and others do not. “Perspectives: The Realities and Intricacies of Development and Aid” featured MP and Liberal Party critic on international cooperation Glen Pearson, and the executive director of Oxfam Canada, Robert Fox. Attended by almost 200 students and members of the public, the talk provided a lively forum for the two panelists to discuss their experiences with development and aid.

Pearson gave a frank – albeit less than shocking – examination of the inadequate state of Ottawa’s current discourse on aid. According to the MP, there are several areas where politics hinder the potential of Canada’s foreign aid initiatives. “International development has become the victim of politics,” he said, expressing fears that global issues are losing attention within the political arena as politicians vie more for votes rather than values.

Pearson also discussed the lack of accountability and transparency within the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). A recent investigation conducted by the auditor general was unable to untangle the financial records of CIDA, and could not come to any conclusions as to approximately how much of the money allocated for aid in Africa makes its way back into Canadian interests.

While admitting that government actions regarding aid efforts can sometimes be misguided, Pearson concluded by emphasizing that there is still a place for government: in cooperation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “NGOs often don’t have the clout to change human rights standards in the world or to provide access…. It’s going to take governments to do that. The problem has been, all along, that governments have stopped to lead, and then never follow their NGOs that actually have the expertise,” he said.

Originally, EWB volunteers brought technical expertise to their host countries, but a shift in the organization’s principles has led to the kind of work that JFs do today.

“We now focus on people rather than technology; this is a change that the organization underwent in its early phases. Our role with respect to [our host] organizations is to find in what niche we can help them do what they’re doing better, and from there technology sometimes gets involved,” said Luigi Tavernese, a U3 Mechanical Engineering student who volunteered in Burkina Faso last summer. Tavernese was able to help his host office with the ins and outs of using Microsoft Excel, but JFs’ duties vary in order to make sure they are adding value to what is already happening within the local organizations.

Robert Fox, with an NGO’s perspective on aid effectiveness, spoke about a need to change ourselves on a global scale – by shifting power and promoting gender equality and women’s rights. He pointed out that some NGOs are inadvertently working against progress. “I will be the first to acknowledge that within NGOs, you will find the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Fox. “There are all sorts of NGOs on the planet that are doing work that is absolutely counter to the interests of the people…for whom they are doing their work.”

Anaïs Couasnon, U2 Civil Engineering, spent last summer in Burkina Faso and agreed with Fox on the importance of empowering women in developing countries. Part of Couasnon’s summer was spent working on a program to help women farmers develop record-keeping and management skills. Women farmers in her area would grow hibiscus to be dried and then exported to Western countries for profit. She saw the direct results of women gaining profit from their farms, as the profit would be used to send their children to school and help begin alleviating the cycle of poverty.

Both projects are representative of EWB’s continued efforts to effect sustainable change through its overseas volunteer program. According to Fox, this is something many organizations are unable to achieve. “Too many NGOs follow the trap of ‘white man from away comes down to the south, tells them what they don’t have, what they’re missing, what they need.’ It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s a recipe for replicating, perpetuating, and exacerbating global poverty,” he said.

Through EWB’s system of providing ongoing feedback on their work, they hope to continue to provide effective development tools and strategies to those who need them most.

McGill’s Engineers Without Borders won Chapter of the Year at January’s national conference. If you’re interested in getting involved with the organization, or just learning more about the work they do, check out their web site: