by Vivas Kumar
12 August 2015
The conversations around the need for greater infrastructure investment are a strong first step towards the ultimate goal of providing equitable basic amenities worldwide. While much has been said about the need for follow-through on implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), basic infrastructure development is the catalyst essential to achieve these goals.
However, it is simply not enough to apply short-term “band-aid” solutions for developing communities. A true long-term solution that accounts for the full infrastructure life-cycle also depends on the type of educational opportunities provided to the next generation of engineers, scientists, financiers, community organizers, and policy makers, all of whom represent fields at the nexus of sustainable infrastructure development.
One such organization that provides this kind of educational exposure while simultaneously creating lasting results is Engineers Without Borders – USA (EWB-USA). Since 2002, the international NGO has developed and implemented small to medium-scale solutions to several basic infrastructure problems in 5 continents:
- Water – water pumps, wells, water distribution systems
- Energy – solar panels and energy storage batteries
- Sanitation – water purification, latrine design
- Healthcare – health delivery supply chain, health clinics
Over its lifespan, EWB-USA learned several key lessons in ensuring project sustainability and in cultivating the knowledge, skills, mindsets, and behaviors within the engineers who undertake these projects. Many of these lessons can be applied in the efforts to accomplish the SDGs while empowering a generation of future leaders with the capabilities to extend impact:
1. Solutions to difficult problems can only happen over the long-term
Whenever an EWB-USA chapter undertakes a project, they make a 5+ year commitment to serve the community in recognition of the timelines necessary to construct robust systems on the scale to serve hundreds to thousands of people. This mode of long-term thinking must be applied to ensure that in 2030 we aren’t faced with having to revisit the SDGs again.
2. Monitoring a project after its completion is just as important as implementing
After an EWB-USA project is implemented, the team responsible for its construction stays in contact with the community and travels back at least once to ensure that the constructed system continues to stay functional. Too many NGOs and non-profit organizations fail to provide adequate follow-up when their projects and processes buckle under the strain of time. All organizations that set bold initiatives to tackle one or more of the SDGs must keep their post-implementation monitoring activities at the top of their mind even from the beginning.
3. Apprenticeship is a highly effective training mechanism
When students from EWB-USA’s student chapters travel to implement their projects, their technical designs are heavily scrutinized by licensed professional engineers, and at least one experienced professional engineer travels with the team as a “professional mentor” to provide project management expertise. Students who travel on these trips are thus given the unique chance to learn essential technical and project management skills on-the-ground from their professional mentors throughout the course of the project. These skills cannot be taught in a classroom, and this level of thinking will be necessary for the new generation of leaders tackling future challenges. Although much of the developed world’s modern education systems have shifted away from apprenticeship models, those organizations that tackle the SDGs can leverage the apprenticeship model with their future leaders as well as within the communities they serve to broaden the scope of their impact.
4. True results are driven by ownership
EWB-USA’s engineers frequently are reminded that they “don’t implement projects, but rather empower the community with whom you work to implement the projects themselves”. Community-driven ownership over infrastructure projects are vital to engender a shared responsibility for project construction and maintenance, and must be the cornerstone of the thinking by those organizations interested in solving the challenges in the path to accomplishing the SDGs.
Every day in communities around the world, EWB-USA volunteers help communities increase knowledge, capacity, and economic opportunities by providing the tools, skills, and engineering expertise required to overcome basic infrastructure hurdles. We sincerely hope that those organizations involved with FFD will focus their energy and capital on long-term solutions towards meeting and surpassing the expectations laid out by the UN’s SDGs.