Kumvana 2010, and how to learn by doing (poorly) [Iron Warrior submission]

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) National Conference in Toronto. Throughout the three days which contained information to sleep in a potent 10:1 mix, I found my self in an internal battle. On one side was compassion and good intent, urging me to do all I could to help others who were not born with the same opportunities and rights as I was. On the other side was history – what right did us Canadians have trying to show other people how to develop after decades of failed aid and when we certainly are nowhere near sustainable and equitable development ourselves.

Engineers Without Borders had been founded with the attitude of approaching poverty as a technical problem with an engineering solution. They quickly realized that development is much more than just technology, and have since matured into an organization that seeks to build capacity of the undertrained and underfunded government departments already set up to address issues such as water, sanitation, and agriculture. With “It’s not sexy, it works” as a slogan, EWB has stepped back from the clearly-defined parameters of a technical problem and reassessed the complex realities of poverty and development. And I think this stepping back is something we all need to do.

This thought was crystalized as I was watching a PBS documentary on British Petroleum for one of my classes. As a helicopter mounted camera panned over an offshore drilling platform, I was awed by the hundreds of millions of dollars of amazing engineering, fabrication, and construction that went into it. I was alsed awed by how ridiculous it seemed. Why are our industries spending so much and depending on an industry we know is ecologically damaging from extraction to consumption and will certainly run out? A rethinking seems to be in order, and I don’t know how changing the way we look at things seems less feasible than continuing in a direction we know isn’t optimized for human welfare.

I myself was doing a lot of rethinking at National Conference. For the first time, I recognized EWB as foreign development NGO, and realized it’s implications beyond what I had come familiar with in the UW chapter. Being able to hear first-hand about the problems agricultural extension agents face in Ghana, what it’s like to take on government corruption in Kenya, or how things have changed in the world of development over the last 30 years from people who have spent their lives working with these issues was incredible. I learned that it’s not enough to hold a debate between halves of your brain, you must invite the thoughts and feelings of people that also care and think about these same issues.

The name of this year’s conference was Kumvana; which means “unite, so we may discuss and understand: in Chichewa, a Malawian language. Open discussion is key, whether over a personal struggle, an engineering problem, and espescially with issues of such complexity as poverty. Speaking with very friendly people with passions and problems similar to myself was great, and speaking with a few people in particular helped me resolve my personal issues with aid projects. In the spirit of frank and open discussion, this past National Conference marked the release of the third annual Failure Report, which has been attracting a fair amount of attention lately. It is a chronicle of worst practices, resources misallocations, and unwise assumptions meant to help us learn what hasn’t worked and why so that we may progress, and not just continue. In the traditional “holier than thou” mindset of aid organizations , publishing failure reports is a big deal. Engineers know that technical mistakes must be learned from to protect public safety, and carry a symbol of historic failure to remind them of this duty. This sense of humility has not yet pervaded the aid industry. Whether it’s because the mistakes have less clear causes, because there is no tradition of critical analysis, or due to a limited perspective, aid NGOs consistently fail, but get back up and keep on trying. What makes EWB special is their stated focus on being critical and learning from past experience to optimize aid effectiveness. Although the failure report has a long way to come, it has a lot of potential for promoting learning and discussion. Just imagine if the federal government published one.

I would encourage present chapter members, people on the mailing list who don’t quite make it out, and even people annoyed or confused by EWB to attend a National Conference, and I challenge you to say your way of thinking and the lenses you perceive the world through hasn’t changed. I also challenge everyone to find George Roter and Parker Mitchell’s class picture in E3.

What does EWB mean to you?

A few years ago the co-CEO’s of EWB were asked to apply for the Schwab Foundation’s “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” award. George and Parker thought that EWB as a whole deserved this award and not themselves, after all the strength of EWB is the members. They encouraged all members of EWB to apply to this award. When the deadline for the application came a week later, 209 EWBers had applied for the award. I thought I would share with you some of my favourite answers to one of the most pertinent questions, “What does EWB mean to you?” I strongly encourage you to read all the applications in full if you have a few hours on your hands.

Hope and courage.

We all have hope that our dream of a just world will be realised.

But hope is not enough, because the changes that need to occur are monumental, and to help enable such changes and will demand a lot of us.

So we also need courage.

10 years ago I was 3rd year engineering student with no direction and no leadership experience. Then the germ of an idea, EWB, took off; it forced me to have the courage to be an entrepreneur; to confront my own fears, to build skills in areas where I as very weak; to make commitments. It has been journey where I always feel proud of the past, but fearful how much more work and more change lie ahead. But being part of the EWB movement, knowing that there are countless other friends and colleagues who are also embarking on this journey gives me the courage to forge on.

EWB challenges the concept of what it means to be an organisation. It's a movement; a force for change that avoids rigidity by continually challenging assumptions. It's a mentality; a lifestyle and a way of thinking that better aligns individual actions and desired impact. It's an engagement mechanism; an avenue that facilitates a person's ability to drive positive change in their community. It's the ability to be both passionate and pragmatic; an idealism that understands limitations.

EWB is humility with confidence.

EWB is overcoming of traditional education; the embracing of experiential and collective learning. It's the abolition of willful ignorance; a network of consideration and awareness. It's a pool of passion; the energy that unifies and drives thousands of Canadians to be a collective force of social innovators. EWB is a mobilization of the grassroots.

EWB is change.

EWB is home. EWB is hope. EWB is getting out of bed in the morning and realizing there are people not shackled by chains of apathy and complacency, people who believe there is more to education than a GPA, more to life than high paying jobs and a swanky car, more to engineering than technical expertise.

EWB is the belief that each and everyone of us has the responsibility and power to do something about the injustices perpetuated around the world. EWB is a common ground where ideologues of all stripes can meet, converse, and learn from each other. EWB is trust.

EWB is the pushing of boundaries and comfort zones, the constant challenging of myself to try new mindsets. EWB has redefined what I understand to be "leadership". It is the reason I no longer view the word with distaste.

EWB is my proof, hope and passion. It is my proof because it is a living testimony that education is the first step in improving the lives of millions around the world. It is proof that what we teach, learn, and act on can and does affect the rest of the world. EWB is my hope because as we educate more in this country, the change in awareness and attitude towards poverty is creating the inherent understanding that sustainable development is key, and sparks the drive to support measures which implement this concept. Finally, EWB is my passion because this organization is the means for change. It is a travesty that people are suffering from lack of access to our most basic needs and resources. EWB members know that we can make change in what is happening half and world away and that is what drives us. We are all leaders in this organization, and like any entrepreneur who wants to succeed, and we lead with passion, drive, and hard work.

For me, EWB represents a side of engineering that I couldn't find in textbooks, the classroom, or in any other engineering environment. I had doubted my commitment to my engineering education until I found what I could offer my community and the world through EWB. It's more than just a great educational, humanitarian and social group, it helps to demonstrate the side of engineering that doesn't concentrate on financial gains and social status. It has helped me to connect with a like-minded group of people who I never knew existed, who share my ideals and my international development goals.

EWB is a vehicle that allows us to have a voice in this social movement. The movement is bigger than each of us, you can't possess it, if you try to take ownership of it, it will by very definition move past you. If you have the courage to take this conversation to where it is most needed, you will be pushed to your fullest potential.

What EWB has meant to me has changed significantly since I become involved in 2002. Back then EWB was a volunteer sending organisation that was excited about linking Canadian engineers with technical challenges in the developing world. EWB become a lot more to me as I went through the application process for a long-term volunteer position this past Spring. EWB has evolved into a very sensitive and passionate organisation that believes development is an extremely complex issue. By constantly questioning ourselves and by working directly with and for local people we can, together, try and make a difference in the fight against poverty. Most recently I have discovered that EWB is even more than that, it is an unbelievably driven group of intelligent individuals that believe in their cause and believe in each other. I have found myself surrounded by a group of people for whom I feel immense love and respect.

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is an organisation in which great change is possible. It empowers people to know this and provides opportunities for people to build the skills and the knowledge to do it. My involvement in EWB makes it so that when I read my BBC daily news email, I don't get overwhelmed by issues of the world, but geared up to change them. EWB is an organisation that thinks much more about opportunities than constraints, and acts on these opportunities.

At the same time that I feel that EWB is what put me on the path of social change, I feel that I have built EWB. In its short but incredible history, I've had space to shape and to grow the organisation while working with passionate colleagues to change Canada and the world. Adding everything above to an obsession with producing and knowing if we're producing results, and a culture of finding a creative solution around any problem, makes me confident that EWB will lead transformative social change.

EWB has enabled me to live my passion as an advocate for human development and grow into a person who is able to affect change. I joined EWB as a social activist - deeply passionate and yearning to create change. Within EWB I have grown into a social entrepreneur - someone identifies root causes of poverty and works in a strategic way to create measurable social change.

So what does EWB mean to you? Leave you answer in the comments.

Here if the link again if you want to read more of these: http://my.ewb.ca/posts/33900/?page=1

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