Saving los 33 – More Than a Miracle

15 Oct

Watching the reaction last night to the gripping finale of the Chilean miners’ saga, I was struck by how many people kept referring to the successful extraction from their underground prison “a miracle.”

Clearly, though, rather than magic, it was an extraordinary feat of engineering that saved their lives – much as some of the miners credit their faith in God with managing to stick out 69 days in a collapsed mine 700 metres below ground.

Yet the amazing work of those engineers who worked quickly to not only find the miners, but communicate with them and eventually bring all of them to safety, reminds me of an organization a lot of people might not know much about: Engineers Without Borders.

Admittedly, I don’t usually think of engineers as a — shall we say  — particularly altruistic lot. Their skills allow them to do a great deal of good, but also harm. And while it are politicians, not engineers, who decide to do it in the first place, they are the ones who find ways to build dams in the Amazon and run freeways through underprivileged urban neighbourhoods or places like the Frederick Law Olmstead-designed park in Buffalo.

Meanwhile, male engineering students have a reputation for being little more than a macho and irresponsible bunch of guys, the phrase “Engineers Rule the World’ a sort of mantra for them. 

So the amazing work of Engineers Without Borders is a refreshing antidote to that view.  According to EWB’s Kyle Baptista, their various chapters throughout North America counter ERTW with ESTW –Engineers Serve the World — “and that’s really gone head to head with the ERTW mantra,” he says.

Co-founded in 2000 by two University of Waterloo engineering grads, Parker Mitchell and George Roter, this non-profit currently unites some 50,000 professionals and students to combat the root causes of poverty in Africa through development projects. They all believe, according to their website “that the next generation of rural Africans should have the same opportunities to improve their lives, that we have right here at home. To help make this a reality, our members and volunteers apply all the creativity, technical skills and problem-solving approach for which engineers are known.”

In fact,  says Kyle, one factor that led to the establishment of EWB was Roter and Mitchell’s recognition of the under-utilization of the engineering profession in poverty reduction.

Now EWB volunteers spend anywhere from four months to three years in rural African communities, he says, “really understanding the needs before they start working on the ‘soft skills’ and capacity building with other partner organizations. So, a fairly different model and fairly different perspective for engineers.”

And with its focus primarily on the university campus, and chapters developing “on their own” in a host of schools, Engineers Without Borders, he says, “has really sort of polarized the perspective on engineers in Canada.”

Check out their website (Rapper/songwriter K’naan will be performing at their 10th Anniversary gala next Janurary) for more information about this great organization.

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