Seyidka settlement in Berkulan, Somalia

Engineers Without Borders profiled

Whenever there is a humanitarian disaster, urgent effort is always focused on more medicines, blankets and food. But engineers work throughout the year to develop better solutions.

Perhaps you've always thought that the main reason you came into engineering is to improve or help society. Certainly this is one of the top reasons given by students of engineering for why they moved into the profession in the first place.

For many, however, it may prove difficult to get involved in the big global issues very early in their career. As in most professions, engineers may have to serve time at the coal face before progressing to a stage where they feel they can make a difference.

There is, of course, the possibility of working with an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the developing world. Humanitarian relief, social enterprises and regional development work are just some of the activities undertaken by engineers trained by NGOs Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and RedR (Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief).

The UK chapter of EWB is fairly new. It was started in 2001 in Cambridge when a group of student engineers and recent graduate engineers decided to pool their expertise and work with various NGOs in the developing world.

In 2002, with the help of an initial £10,000 donation from British multinational mining company Anglo American, EWB-UK arranged its first overseas placement in Pondicherry, India, with ORSED (Organisation for Social and Environmental Development). The first EWB-UK training course also took place, and work began on building research and knowledge-sharing capacity.

Since then, the number and variety of training courses, overseas placements (now 60 per year) and research projects has grown significantly. The number of branches has now grown to 31.

Engineering skills and expertise

Looking at the work that charities such as Oxfam publicise, you would be forgiven for thinking they are only interested in medical and direct humanitarian skills. However, engineering is a humanitarian requirement, and is in huge demand.

Of course, it can be hard to make the move to humanitarian without previous experience. Building the infrastructure to cope with a crisis, for example, requires forward technical planning; engineers are needed to design and develop systems, sometimes prefabricated, that can be installed and put to use immediately.

This does not mean, though, that there are no opportunities for student engineers to get involved in Africa. Solving some of Africa's most immediate issues, such as heat and energy provision to rural areas, employment, food supply and sanitation requires engineering skills. Many African nations cannot afford to train enough engineers to undertake this type of work. As these skills are so widely prized around the world, it is common for home-grown talent to be lured abroad by higher salaries.

Therefore, a good many NGOs are increasingly offering what they consider to be more sustainable solutions for Africa's most urgent problems. Many are involved in setting up and running social enterprises. A social enterprise draws up goals that are not merely financial but act to improve the communities in some way.

Viable social enterprises

Great Lakes Energy, based in Kigali, Rwanda, is one example of a social enterprise. It provides solar energy to millions of rural low-income households across East Africa, while in the process replacing harmful and inefficient kerosene lighting used by an estimated eight million rural consumers in Rwanda.

Ray Gorman, chief engineer at Great Lakes Energy, was originally seconded by EWB-UK in October 2011. He now leads a multi-disciplinary team in the design and execution of a variety of energy- and water-related projects, ranging from solar PV for off-grid health centres to custom-built irrigation systems for plant propagation.

"Social enterprise may be a trendy topic at the moment," he says, "but it is an important business model that provides more sustainable solutions than not-for-profit-based models. We make profits, we pay taxes and, therefore, are very viable. We are also growing fast."

RedR also offers training to engineers and technicians in the field so that communities can withstand future threats to their lives and livelihoods. The organisation was founded in London in 1980 by engineer Peter Guthrie following time spent delivering aid during the Vietnamese Boat People Crisis. On the advice of Oxfam's chief engineer Jim Howard, Oxfam provided seed funding and RedR was formally registered as a charity.

Humanitarian training

RedR's UK programme delivers a range of training courses, from a basic introduction to the sector to specialist courses for professional aid workers. The company offers credit-rated courses in partnership with Oxford Brookes University in an effort to further professionalise the humanitarian sector.

EWB and RedR work closely with each other. Nic Scarborough, communications and marketing manager for RedR, says: "Engineering, technology and innovation are crucial in the fight against poverty, in rebuilding disaster-stricken communities and in the mitigation of climate change. By uniting on this common cause we can strengthen our impact and make a real difference to those in need.

"Issues of global water security, increasing population, urbanisation and climate change mean the world we live in is changing rapidly and we require innovative solutions to meet these new challenges."

Around the world, disasters are becoming more intense and more frequent. In the last 10 years, 2.6 billion people have been affected by natural disasters, compared with 1.6 billion in the previous decade. 2011 was a record year for the cost of catastrophes to the global economy, totalling US$300bn, compared with $226bn in 2010.

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