For Catherine Leslie, her 2003 trip with a team of engineers to a village in Mali was an eye-opener.
The villagers asked the engineers to build a system to supply water. But the village already had three wells — all broken because residents had not been taught to maintain them. Today, as the executive director of Engineers Without Borders USA, Leslie makes sure that impoverished communities are deeply engaged in improvement projects.
Bernard Amadei, a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, founded the nonprofit in 2002, and since then its membership has grown to include students and nonengineering professionals as well as engineers.
The group’s 17,000 U.S. members work on what they call “low-tech, high-impact projects” in 42 countries. These projects range from building latrines to developing rainwater catchment systems and from installing solar lighting to designing bridges.
Communities pitch in
When Engineers Without Borders comes to town, a host community provides in-kind contributions and at least 5 percent of a given project’s cost. Locals also commit to maintaining an installation once the visiting engineers finish their work. (Before they leave, they educate the entire community about the project and train selected members to do maintenance.)
A community’s ownership of a project helps it succeed, and that involvement is more essential than technology, according to a 2014 report by Engineers Without Borders. The communities maintain about two-thirds of all completed projects.
“It’s not about charity, but empowerment,” Amadei told The Hindu, an Indian newspaper. “People develop themselves. There is a lot of wealth in people … lots of knowledge and skills.”
Engineers and student volunteers gain cross-cultural leadership skills and enjoy the emotional rewards from making life better for people. Even Leslie, when worn out by office work, likes to travel to the areas where her group is active to regain this sense of fulfillment.
“You see kids, who used to spend most of their time hauling water from distant sources, playing,” she says. “It gives you a gratifying feeling.”