Engineers without borders


A conference speaking on courage to change

What is going on here? / Laura Billett

What is going on here? / Laura Billett

What does it mean to be a part of a non-governmental organization? The questions of aid effectiveness, non-governmental (NGO) effectiveness, and what development should truly look like are not all new ones, nor are there any clear, conclusive answers to such questions.

International development is a messy and often discouraging subject. However, the truth that is often overlooked is that organizations exist that are plowing through the complexities of international development and finding solutions.

I recently attended a conference in Montreal for Engineers Without Borders (EWB) without having had any experience with the organization and without knowing a thing about engineering. What I discovered was not how to draft (though I was given a helpful hint on how to draw a straight line) or design complex systems, machines, or structures. Instead I learned what it truly means to be engaged in the world.

The three days of the conference were jam-packed with sessions facilitated by incredible people from the World Bank, MPs from the Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic Parties of Canada, entrepreneurs from Ghana and Canada, and business leaders from all over the world. These people seem so incredibly different on paper, but once they all began to speak, it became clear why they were all invited to share their stories, advice, and methods with EWB members. All of these people saw a huge potential in the world around them even amidst the surplus of pain and terror we see globally every day.

Often terminology and mission statements that focus on sustainable and just change sound cheesy and idealistic. The words used in this conference were no different. Phrases dealing with systemic change, collaboration, and social entrepreneurship flew freely in conversations. However, what propelled those words was the most genuine desire for change that I have ever encountered, and this humble, realistic, and ambitious energy made phrases like “unite to unlock” powerful and inspiring rather than clichéd.

People spoke for three days about their own failures, successes, and frustrations with the world and its systems. It soon became clear to me that Engineers Without Borders was an NGO different from many. There may be idealism at the heart of EWB members, but it is contrasted and grounded by stark realism and acknowledgment of the challenges, failures, and, honestly, outrageous goals of the organization.

Africans, Canadians, students, politicians, diplomats, entrepreneurs, engineers, business leaders, and artists gathered together to discuss, get angry, question each other, question themselves, and think about how they can make a difference in the world.

I think we can forget just how impactful our actions truly are. If there is anything that I have taken away from this experience, and want anyone hopeful enough to be reading this article to take away, it is that we all have a potential to make change. Whether you believe in development, art, academics, science, or justice, opportunities are out there for everyone. Give yourself a boost of confidence and go devote your energy to a project that keeps you hopeful. In a world full of fear, it is this energy and love that will keep society human.

Full-disclosure: Our Arts and Culture Writer Laura Billett, the author of this article, is a Pre-Selected Junior Fellow for Engineers Without Borders.

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