| Crossing borders and fields of study

Engineers Without Borders does what many before it could not

Not only does it take all kinds to make the world go round, it also takes all kinds to change it. The McGill chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a large organization that extends to 29 universities in Canada, illustrates this by going beyond the scope of their name. They allow students from all faculties and departments to come together in hopes of achieving one ambitious, inspirational (and, some would argue, idealistic) goal: providing solutions to global humanitarian problems, such as water resources and agricultural issues. That’s certainly a lot of material to chew on, but as Marc Chelala, Director of Communications at McGill EWB, would say, “It’s all about rethinking the system.”

While EWB was first conceived as a technical program providing opportunities for engineers to help communities in need, unsuccessful projects led to the broadening of the organization’s scope. “Initial projects did not focus on the self-sufficiency of the targeted communities,” explains Chelala, “eventually, participants realized that simply building a well wasn’t enough to make a change.” Thus came a new vision, as it wasn’t about investing in the project anymore – it was about “investing in the people,” a tagline that embodied EWB’s newfound direction and commitment to reaching the roots of the problem. The organization’s actions were then divided into a four-step process: research, pilot, scaling, and exit. The process is simple to implement. After understanding the causes of the problem, it becomes important to come up with new approach strategies and implement them gradually, the goal being to leave knowing the community will be able to sustain itself afterwards. In this spirit, EWB carries out its development work with governments.

“We want to avoid falling into ‘voluntourism’ as much as possible,” explains Julia Wai, Vice-President of Communications. Indeed, many questions have been raised in the past over the administration of charitable organizations, including some sponsored by EWB. The impact of the projects developed, and the use of the funds raised, are among those concerns. “While many [volunteers] choose to go for two-month expeditions, we focus on the long-term, and our projects typically last for at least a year.” How exactly does the McGill chapter contribute to those projects? The answer lies in McGill EWB’s Junior Fellowship Program, whereby one to two students are sent to African countries each year (most recently Uganda and Malawi) to participate in the organization’s longer 12 month endeavours. However, the chapter also offers many other ways to get involved, no matter your field of study.

“One of our main challenges this year is to reach out to a variety of students,” stresses Wai. “It is a very common misconception that EWB is composed entirely of engineers, when in fact our work is being [carried out] by a wide range of people.”

One prime example of EWB’s reaching out beyond its own faculty is Jessica Hoch, a U3 geography student. In charge of developing Fair Trade projects for McGill EWB, Hoch recently reached a major milestone: an official certification from Fair Trade itself. “Finally obtaining our certification felt very fulfilling,” she explains. ”It was a pleasing step in our development. We are committed to offering visibility and accessibility to Fair Trade products, such as chocolate and coffee.” Buying these products ensures that the workers involved in their making benefit from reasonable conditions. McGill Food and Dining Services has played a major role in monitoring that the standards for the products are respected in official McGill stores. EWB also oversees the standards of student-run stores, which include Snax in the Leacock Building, the Engineering Undergraduate Society store in McConnell, and Dave’s Store in Bronfman.

“We’ll also keep offering coffee days on Mondays and Fridays in the Adams building,” adds Hoch. Coffee days act as a fundraising activity for McGill EWB, among other annual events like their Valentine’s Day chocolate sale. These events also give students a chance to meet with members of the chapter.

Other involvement opportunities cover global engineering, youth engagement, and political advocacy. “We have a large body of 22 executives,” explain Adam Hasham, president of the McGill chapter. “A number of them are assigned to every subproject we sponsor to allow coordination. We also try to organize panels on foreign aid and to invite guest lecturers.” Hasham has been particularly proud of the organization’s political achievements, which include passing bills in the House of Commons regarding transparency of Canadian foreign aid. “In 2008, collectively with other chapters, we managed to pass a bill to untie foreign aid spending, which was an important political success for us,” said President Adam Hasham.

The EWB also looks forward to the Run to End Poverty, another way to support the organization, which will take place on October 20. Runners can opt for a distance ranging from 5 to 40 kilometers. While the Montreal edition takes place on Mount Royal, multiple events are organized across Canada. It is possible to sign up online and to upload your team’s information on the website.

Despite the abundance of activities, Wai acknowledges the organization’s struggles to attract volunteers from different backgrounds. “We’re in the process of rebranding to make EWB more accessible.” This feeling appears to be strongly shared within the organization, as the sentence “You don’t have to be an engineer!” can be quoted to all four members interviewed. “The word ‘engineer’ appears off-putting,” Chelala and Wai asserted, “as we saw at the orientation, but we want to create forums with other clubs and to reach out [to more] people.”

Executive members will be available on coffee days and can also be reached at mcgill@ewb.ca