Saturday, May 3, 2008

Engineering in Development

After a somewhat tumultuous exam period and frantic final preparations, I feel like I finally have an opportunity to write a little. I am thrilled to be at the beginning of what is certain to be a tremendous opportunity for learning and impact in the complex world of international development. But first, a little background on who I am, where I’m going, and some of the reasons for it.

My name is Duncan, and I have just finished my third year of civil engineering at UBC. This summer I will be traveling to the southern African country of Malawi with Engineers Without Borders as a part of their Junior Fellowship program in international development. The program is designed to send university undergraduates to Africa to help alleviate extreme poverty, gain relevant on the realities of poverty and field work, and share experiences and knowledge with both students and the general public following their placement. Ultimately, the goal is to have as much impact as possible, both in Canada and overseas, on reducing global poverty.

Often the first question that I’ve been asked about the summer is about what I will be building. Ironically, as both an engineer and a member of Engineers Without Borders, I will likely not be building any of the traditional infrastructure one would expect. As part of EWB’s approach to development, we partner with existing organizations, such as non-government organizations (NGOs), instead of running our own initiatives. As volunteers, our role is to bring a fresh perspective, provide additional skills and knowledge, and help facilitate the development of both the organizations and the communities they work with to ensure that our efforts foster sustainable growth long after our departure. Sometimes this does involve dealing with very technical issues, but there is a far greater need for assistance in providing access to simple, existing technologies and working with and improving existing systems. By working with these existing conditions instead of a new initiative, projects can be more effective in both the short and long terms.

People are at the focus of all development work, and human development ultimately needs to be driven by the local population. As a foreigner with very little understanding of local contexts, I can only serve to help facilitate the transfer of relevant skills and abilities that people can use to improve their livelihoods. To sum it up with an adaptation of a popular expression:

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day

Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime

Teach a man how to teach a man to fish and

his community will eat for a lifetime

So it is with lofty aspirations for long-term change that I find myself, mere hours out of my last final exam, beginning a week of pre-departure training in Toronto and contemplating how I can be most effective when working with an issue as complex as extreme poverty.


Maureen said...

What a wonderful endeavour, and a great adventure. I look forward to reading your blog, Duncan. Good luck!
-Maureen Bayless

Chad said...

Hey good stuff Duncan! You have genuine compassion and it's nice to see.


Nechako said...


have fun in africa! You made APSC 262 awesome, it was a fun time. Keep in touch!


Felipe said...

Muy bien Duncan!!!! I know you since you were a litle boy and I alway knew you were going to do big thigs, All our support from Argentina!!!!!
Benjamin, Marina and Felipe

Erin said...


Consider yourself bookmarked! I am eagerly awaiting new stories, new pictures, and all the learning that will ensue!

It's going to be a really exciting summer!

Take care of yourself,

Sammy said...

That's all well and good... but what if you taught the man to teach a man to teach a man to fish? Think about it...

Have a great time buddy (not like I need to tell you!) and keep up the blog.

Oh, and if you're in touch with your parents, tell them to get back to me! We need to plan!

-Sam "the wild man" Mason

Annelies said...

hey duncan,
sounds awesome so far. I can't wait to read the blog and update the chapter. Feel free to e-mail me whenever and I will ensure that the chapter comes up with some questions to get you thinking. good luck