Volunteers bringing hope... and light
WE’VE all heard of Doctors Without Borders, but here’s a cause you don’t so often see emblazoned on money collection tins at train stations: Engineers Without Borders ( EWB).
The organisation sends volunteers overseas to work on projects in developing countries.
Stepping away from cutting- edge technology and big budgets, the engineers generally assist with simple technologies to provide basic necessities like clean drinking water, sanitation and electricity.
Director of campaigns and awareness, Todd Houstein, says their approach is to empower locals with the knowledge and skills to create positive change within their communities.
‘‘ When we do a project, we don’t build it ourselves - we provide access to the knowledge that the locals need to do it themselves,’’ he says. ‘‘ This way, they know how to maintain it and have ownership of it.’’
EWB also tries to ensure their construction projects use locally available materials.
One of their ongoing projects is at the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics. Since 2004, EWB volunteers have been going over to train the teaching staff to improve the standard of instruction given to the students.
Mechanical and biomechanical knowledge needed to fit prosthetic limbs and braces are the main focus areas.
‘‘ It’s very important there because of all the land mines,’’ Mr Houstein says. ‘‘ The course wasn’t quite up to the standard required to teach a uni degree in Australia or other developed countries.’’
In Nepal, volunteers are working with the Rural Integrated Development Services to improve the quality of life of people in the remote Humla region.
One of the projects involves designing smokeless stoves for the residential huts.
‘‘ It’s cold in the mountains, and people living in the small brick huts light open fires in the huts which results in a lot of smoke inside,’’ Mr Houstein explains. ‘‘ The women and children are the ones who spend most of the time inside the huts. They have a short life expectancy because of the smoke inhalation.’’
EWB volunteers designed smokeless stoves with chimneys to direct the smoke out of the houses. For lighting, they designed small solar panels for the roofs of the huts to power efficient LED lighting.
‘‘ You see these Nepalese women switching on a light for the first time and the look of amazement on their face,’’ Mr Houstein says. ‘‘ This is work that would not otherwise be possible without that help of the volunteers that we send.’’
There are also several Australian- based programs, mainly helping people in remote indigenous communities. One example is a waste management plan for the Murra Murra people, 800km west of Brisbane. It involves training the locals to clean up an old dump and developing a future waste management system.
Workers wishing to become volunteers can choose placements as short as one month or up to a year or two.
Donated funds, often from private engineering companies, cover the volunteers’ airfares. Partner organisations in the communities provide meals and accommodation.
‘‘ They live in the community - live and eat like the locals,’’ Mr Houstein says.
‘‘ All the costs are covered and they get a small living allowance.’’ Most of the volunteers are recent graduates, between 20 and 35 years.
‘‘ Every person that has been sent overseas comes back having had a really amazing, lifechanging experience,’’ Mr Houstein says. ‘‘ It gives you a different perspective on the world.
‘‘ Some people, to begin with, have the intention to go and do development work to help people. But once you actually go and experience it, you probably gain more yourself than the people we’re trying to help for a whole lot of reasons.’’