on December 13th, 2016

Engineering in the first world and engineering in the third – developing – world is vastly different. Therefore, being the engineering “change” is not as cut and dry as it sounds. Why is that? The answer is technology. The Dean of Engineering, here at the Engineering Institute of Technology, Steve Mackay, explains: “One of the challenges we have is that we have the Western world, with ferocious access to technology and then we’ve got the third world – or the developing world – where things are not as good, where, in fact, you’ve got billions of people without sanitation, without drinking water, a real, real, problem.” 

Furthermore, the education in the developing world also has differences to the Western world. Mackay believes, however, that the Western world can add value in the developing world through engineering. This has its limitations. The Western world will have technologies that the developing world does not have. So, why does the Western world just not throw the poorer countries a bone and give them the advanced technologies

One of the critical things is when you do get involved with projects in the developing world, it’s not to try and apply some massive, highly advanced, sophisticated infrastructure [or] advanced manufacturing. The trick is to go for barefoot engineering; which is, low-cost technology appropriate to the actual community you’re in,” Mackay adds. 

Barefoot engineering can also refer to engineering without qualifications in developing nations. Bunker Roy (71) is an Indian activist and educator. In 2011, Roy gave a TED Talk on the subject of a college he created named the Barefoot College. The college was built in Rajasthan, India, with the help of illiterate laborers. The college teaches men and women how to become solar engineers, artisans, dentists and doctors in their own villages. Roy said these people do not need a paper qualification to determine how equipped they are to offer a service to the people of their country. It is not about money and fancy technologies to the developing world, it is about the survival of human beings. 

“We redefined professionalism,” Roy said in his TED Talk. “Who is a professional? A professional is someone who is a combination of competence, confidence, and belief.” He believes that knowledge and skills are universal, and even illiterate people can become engineering professionals. In the Western world, the emphasis on theory-based learning prioritized above technical training can sometimes lead to engineers who do not know the practical uses of technologies that developing worlds could use. So, the developing world’s barefoot engineering “professionals” can teach qualified engineers a thing or two. 

However, poorer nations are in need of help from engineers who could put their knowledge and skills to good use and improve the developing world’s quality of life. Whether or not they do that, was the focus of George D. Catalano’s book Engineering, Poverty, and the Earth. He questions whether engineers are, indeed, the “world-improvers” that – in his mind – they are supposed to be. Catalano believes engineers must focus on environment degradation and poverty, something, he believes, engineers have not done in the past.  He writes: “[Engineers] strive for maximum profit during the shortest period of time with minimum investment.” 

However, there are a group of engineers that strive for the improvement of developing nations with a strict focus on utilizing the technologies of the developing nations. One entity that exists to assist with solving global challenges in engineering, is the non-governmental organization named Engineers Without Borders (EWB). The Canadian branch of the NGO is particularly instrumental in Africa, working towards global poverty eradication through using technologies native to African territories. The engineers attempt to understand and implement cost-effective technologies that will benefit the engineering community of the developing world. 

EWB Canada does not work for the benefit of their engineers but rather for the engineers of an impoverished nation. The organization encourages African countries to put politics aside and focus on enriching the continent through engineering. At the end of the year, the engineers that are actively involved in any engineering projects in the developing world publish their shortcomings and failures in what they call the Failure Report. The report is used as a motivational tool for the engineers, constantly encouraging them to learn from the failures of past projects so that they can continue innovating and doing well in developing nations. The organization makes the point that publishing their failures means they may be highlighting their failures but it does not mean they have been defeated or unsuccessful.

Furthermore, the Engineers Without Borders movement also embeds entrepreneurial skills into the communities so that they can build functioning industrial businesses in agriculture and civil engineering for a developing country that might need them most. The CEO of EWB Canada, Boris Martin, says that seed-funding projects in third world countries are not about gaining profit for both parties, but rather contributing to the struggling countries themselves. He says the organization shows how big a part engineering can play in early stage ventures that just need the small technological and knowledgeable push in order to become working systems that can benefit a small village, community or entire country. 

Mackay says that engineering can benefit both your local communities and the communities in the third world. He outlines a list of engineering feats that have been perfected in impoverished nations. Reusing industrial waste and implementing solar energy projects for the heating of food, water and general lighting are just some of the things that engineers have been able to contribute. He concludes: “I just want to urge you to jump in there and assist in your small way with a project, in those communities. It is amazing how rewarding it is when you actually help someone else.” 

Here at the Engineering Institute of Technology, we offer a six-month Graduate Certificate of Renewable Energy Technologies program, beginning on the 16th May, 2017. Please contact us for more information, spaces are very limited.


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