Volunteerism is in but are there enough opportunities?

Young professionals want to volunteer and make a difference. There are some excellent programs available such as Engineers Without Borders (EWB), Australian Youth Ambassador Development (AYAD) Program, Australian Volunteers International and RedR – however opportunities are limited and highly competitive.

In the development industry there is a prohibitive culture that generally requires persons to have more than 10 years experience to gain entry. Of course how does one gain 10 years experience in the first place? This closed door approach breeds nepotism and an incestuous stale culture. Large programs are often run by generalists and not specialists, resulting in poor technical decisions that impact on the environment, economic and social sustainability of interventions. This is seen largely in the development water and sanitation field where (broadly speaking) technologies and “cookie cutter” models have not changed over the last 30-40 years. It is time to open the doors and tap into the exuberance and wealth of technical expertise that young (and old) engineers can offer international development programs.

Of course a cautionary approach is required. Too often young people without wider cultural experiences fresh from university and full of know how want to change the world in a day. Whilst we have the amazing fortune of the best education in the world we do suffer from elitism and sometimes lack the sensitivity to understand that solutions for Australia will not always work in other countries and cultures. Myself, an ex-AYAD volunteer (Vietnam, 2003) was certainly guilty of rushing to impart my engineering wisdom without first properly engaging the local community and understanding what it was they wanted and how it could be sustainably managed – engineers have a particularly bad reputation for poor communication and community involvement.

However, I see an opportunity for balance. Combining in-country experienced program managers with technically minded engineers can result in great collaborations with communities and local governments. From my experience it takes more than 6 months in a placement to begin to settle into a foreign environment, learn the basics of a new language and culture, appreciate the local demands of a new job and form relationships with local people. You need even longer if you want to see beneficial and sustainable community change. Given the opportunity and under carefully managed support structures young engineers will flourish and make rewarding contributions – of which the most valuable will be imparting their knowledge to the local community members they work with.

Presently, it is generally acknowledged there is too much emphasis on hardware (infrastructure) than software (capacity building of local communities). For example, there are over 50,000 abandoned water pumps in sub-Saharan Africa, representing a lost investment of between US$300-500 million. Why is it that communities have not managed to sustain the operation of these assets? The answer is complicated and the solution requires a long term commitment to investing in local people – something that historically is not popular with foreign aid donors as it is difficult to tangibly document results within a funding (election) cycle.

For the last 4 years I have been based in rural Tanzania. I moved there to support my partner who was starting a new job in malaria research. Through tragic (cholera outbreak) and frustrating (no response from government or NGOs) circumstances I found myself motivated to start working with the surrounding local rural communities to improve their water and sanitation situation.

I have been working with a dedicated team of local Tanzanians and young volunteer engineers developing MSABI - a replicable and expandable program model for the implementation of low overhead community based, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects that are owned, managed and operated by small local businesses. The project promotes low cost, simple, easy to use “smart” technologies constructed locally from available materials. MSABI facilitates the training of local businesses that include the manufacture of rope pumps and drilling equipment, manual drilling and pump installation services, maintenance and repair services, construction of sanitation facilities, irrigation lease arrangements, and the production of clay filter pots.

Complimentary businesses include the sale of water by local owners of pumps and increased agriculture production through the use of compost fertiliser and irrigated crops. These interventions promote ownership, self-reliance, independence and lead to sustainable management of local businesses. Local businesses create employment and stimulate village level economies.

Within 20-months of start-up MSABI has managed the training and creation of local WASH supply businesses for more than +45 local people, facilitated the installation of 145 new safe water point business (increasing safe water access to over +30,000 disadvantaged rural Tanzanians), constructed 20 compost latrines and 2 large school wastewater treatment systems, commenced a pilot trial for irrigation cash crop lease arrangements and established local production of clay filter pots (currently in the final process proving stages leading to commercialisation).

This has been achieved by a local team of rural village persons of whom 90% are illiterate, supported by volunteer engineers under the age of 30 (with the exception of myself who is creeping into mid 30s). I sincerely hope that both our government and large multinational aid and development programs start to seriously look at creating greater opportunities for young professionals to gain experience and transfer their skills and knowledge to those less fortunate.