I recently attended the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference in Seattle, WA. There, I came to realize a couple of keys points about engineering for humanitarian efforts, disadvantaged communities, or developing nations. Some of these ideas have been floating around in my head, and I’ve been trying to form coherent descriptions about what it really takes to effectively translate thoughts to actions for those who wish to work with communities abroad, especially on engineering projects.
First, it takes high-quality, low-cost knowledge in digital and hardcopy form. Make sure that if you are going to create a design for developing nations and you wish to affect the poorest individuals in these communities positively, design straightforward, ease-to-read, nice-to-look-at documentation. Also, translate it into the local language. Use open source hardware conventions and post your designs to your own website, or a design sharing website. Additionally, I am a supporter of the idea that development groups should focus on a single technological area, like water or energy, in order to master technology transfer and implementation techniques.
Second, development groups should focus on translating this high-quality, low-cost knowledge to local community educational institutions in order to build up knowledge capacity. Providing this educational resource to a community would allow more local students to build up value in themselves, and years later, this may show itself in projects conceived and designed of by local engineers. If possible, create not just manuals for building components, but problems for students to solve and video/downloadable lectures for students to learn from. Imagine the text books of today’s modern US university redesigned for those to can’t afford these books – smaller, compact information and problem sets would be needed, I think. (Yes, I do assume that some one would need access to internet or know a person with internet. A big assumption? Maybe.)
Third, it takes quality teachers on the ground, embedded into these local community educational institutions to teach design and problem solving for many months, if not years. For example, think Peace Corp but for engineering education exclusively. Think about graduated undergrads, graduate students, and faculty from all over the world going overseas for months or years to disadvantaged areas and developing nations in order to provide engineering education and support for the high-quality, low-cost digital or hardcopy knowledge. Some groups may think of themselves as the Engineering Peace Corps, but truly, this does not exist. These groups focus on providing, effectively, free engineering consulting work for building public utility infrastructure that the local government can’t or won’t implement themselves. Is there a place for this kind of group? Sure. Is there one that does it effectively and would agree to undergo audits for each project in order to prove that is does what it says it’s doing over the long run? That’s debatable.