Engineering with mind, heart and soul

Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders says engineers can also be peacemakers

May 27, 2014 06:14 pm | Updated 07:00 pm IST - Hyderabad:

Like all good engineers, Bernard Amadei is fascinated by complex problems. But the complexities that plague his mind go far beyond numbers and machinery. “How do you integrate the human component of engineering into our current university curriculum?” he asks on Sunday morning. “How do you go into a community and help them solve their problems?” This is because Amadei is not just any engineer; the founder of Engineers without Borders- International (EWB) – an association which helps engineers across the world develop skills and reach out to work with communities across the globe believes that crossing barriers - geographical, cultural or disciplinary – is the key to a better world.

The sequence of events that led to the creation of EWB began, quite literally in Amadei’s backyard. “A few people who came to help me with some landscaping work at home were from Belize and they told me about the needs of young people in their village. Two years later, when on sabbatical, I received an email from them asking for help, so I decided to go,” recalls Amadei who at the time, had a flourishing academic career at the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA. In the village of San Pablo, Belize, he had a change of heart and mind. “It was my first experience with the developing world and my first exposure to poverty. It really shocked me,” says Amadei who grew up in France before migrating to the US in 1982.

In San Pablo, Amadei saw girls as young as eight whose sole job was to carry water from the river to the village. As a civil engineer he knew a pump was the logical solution but the challenge lay in operating a pump where there was no electricity and fuel was not affordable. “The problem was moving water from A to B, something engineers come across all the time but the context was different,” he says. Finally Amadei, along with a team of twelve and some help from private donors and a waterfall in the area, managed to create natural power using the force of the waterfall and use that to pump water to villages. Between this and fulfilling his duties as a Professor at the University of Colorado, the process took over a year.

“It was the first time my need to help people and engineering came together and the students decided they wanted to continue doing more practical, meaningful engineering. That’s how Engineers without Borders came about,” he explains. Since, Amadei has dedicated himself to creating an engineering community that has the skills and the compassion to bring about needed change across the globe. As EWB grew into the international NGO it is today, he also began to think about how education can be changed to address global issues.

“I was uncomfortable working there; I realised I couldn’t use what I had learnt for rich people, to serve poor people across the world. So how do we create global engineers who can adapt to conditions in a developing country? How do you deal with people and their cultures? It is a more holistic kind of engineering. I call it humanitarian engineering – engineering with mind, heart and soul,” he says.

Amadei dislikes using the word ‘poor’ to describe the communities he works with. “It’s not about charity but empowerment. People develop themselves. There is a lot of wealth is people – it may not be a material wealth but there is lots of knowledge and skills like cultivation or dealing with a flood. Most Americans, if asked, will tell you potatoes grow on trees,” he points out. EWB hence operates on a community engagement model, taking into account indigenous methods of engineering, accessibility and affordability to resources and their ability to maintain the project. The aim is also to create meaningful employment that can lead to enterprise.

Although helping people build shelter, schools and basic infrastructure makes up most of EWB’s work, some projects have far reaching consequences that include promoting regional co operation between governments. “ Water does not stop between India and Pakistan. Issues like water and pollution is without borders. How do we solve these problems using science and technology, leading to a peaceful world?” he asks.

India has over 28 chapters of EWB and over 200 members actively working on a project. According to Ali Ansari who founded EWB-India, the Muffakham Jah College of Engineering and Technology and GITAM University have fairly large, active chapters. Amadei believes that everyone has a gift to give the world and that it is our responsibility to find that gift – or our lives’ “mission statement”. Once you recognise that and work towards using it, you begin changing the world.

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