Engineers Without Borders draws from a branch of studies rooted in empirical observation, methodological analysis, and precise implementation. After all, engineering is about taking the facts we know to be true and applying them logically to real life problems. But the challenge of any engineering problem is that our work can only be as good as our underlying assumptions: shoddy baseline estimates or incorrect equations, even implemented perfectly, will still result in the wrong answer. It is this that makes the work we do with Engineers Without Borders so difficult; we are students eagerly devoted to helping communities improve their standard of life with our development projects, but getting past all the unknowns to create a sustainable and helpful solution is no small feat.
As we – four undergraduate students and our professional mentor – stepped out into the sweltering heat of Boca Chica, the challenges ahead raced through my mind. We were here in the Dominican Republic for our pre-assessment trip where we would travel to the western edge of the country, practically touching Haiti, and scope out a few communities that had been recommended to us by our partnering NGO, Save the Children, for a new project. They had worked along the border helping bring education, health, and development projects to communities for decades, but were no longer able to fund or assist with the increasingly difficult problem of water distribution and other complicated infrastructure projects in these communities, which is where we were to come in. But despite having been in constant communication with Save the Children for the past four months, despite the extensive research we had done with regards to this country and its culture, despite the research into water projects and responsible development, we were entering into a world of unknowns.
Because EWB is comprised of a volunteer base of engineers, or in this case students who predominantly study engineering, we cannot spend extensive amounts of time in the communities we seek to partner with. Instead, we make short jaunts to the communities and rely on the more permanent presence of our NGO partner along with leaders in the community itself to give us the information we need to design a project and then to prepare and maintain it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The purpose of this trip was to pick a partner community (selecting one of three candidates), start building relationships with the said community, and lay the ground work for future communication with the community and eventual implementation. We were to spend a day in each community, talking to town leaders to gain an understanding of their needs, leadership dynamic, past infrastructure, and willingness to partner with us. After this, we would select the community and do a more comprehensive house-by-house survey to ensure there was a clearly established problem we could address and to begin to form a relationship. With this structure, we have to work quickly and intelligently to understand the communities, evaluating their leadership structure, the technical feasibility of a project, and their need all with little time to do it. We had a clear set of criteria and goals for this trip and a clear idea of how we wanted to achieve it, but knowing that the work we did here would set the groundwork for a 5-7 year project and partnership, the stakes were high.
The first challenge in this kind of development work is establishing a clear need. Although we had been directed to each of our three candidates – Carrizal, El Aguacate, and Cajuil – because Save the Children’s diagnosed a lack of infrastructure and water access in each. I put a lot of faith in this assessment because it was obvious how respected this NGO was in the communities. Julio, a Save the Children worker who carted us from town to town that week, was clearly close to the communities and I had every reason to trust in what he told us about the communities’ needs. But we needed to hear these things from the mouths of community members. We needed to see and hear this need with our own eyes and ears. Moreover, we needed to see that this need could be serviced by a project with a guarantee of long-term sustainability and tangible, quantifiable metrics for success. We scrambled through miles of jungle to look at past water infrastructure in each community. We went door to door asking questions about each household’s needs.
we compared this to what past EWB projects have been able to accomplish. In short, we gathered a whole lot of data, but at some level, I found myself holding my breath, praying that the questions we thought to ask and observations we jotted down were enough to give us a clear understanding of the communities we saw.
In addition to establishing a clear need, it is our job to determine whether a project could be feasible and sustainable, an assessment that largely depends upon the structure of leadership within the community and their organizing power. Upon entering the first community, Carrizal, we were greeted by a group of roughly 20 individuals, part of various committees that oversaw the community, including a water committee. What became clear to me was the strength and conviction of several of these individuals in particular. There is one woman in particular I immediately fell in love with from the community. She spoke clearly and confidently, providing us a prioritized list of issues in the community and making it clear she was a go-getter. To my delight she always used “nosotras y nosotros” rather than the standard male-favoring “nosotros”; this was a woman who could command respect and get things done. She and the rest seemed capable, organized, and trustworthy and yet, we learned there had been an aqueduct installed in this community 22 years ago, and despite whatever competence and organization they espoused now, they had essentially let it fall into a state of uselessness. They had failed to exercise conservation techniques and had over-extented their reservoir. How had this happened and who was to say if we built them an improved water system they wouldn’t let the exact same thing happen again as their community grew? I wanted to trust in the admirable and strong individuals I saw before me, who told us they deserved and could make good use of this project, but all I had was a tentative understanding of their track record and current state.
The second community was even more confusing. El Aguacate was in desperate need of water and, of all the communities we visited, had the greatest need. And yet, one of the reasons they were in this position was because they too had not made good use of existing infrastructure. They had let an aqueduct fall into disuse and had let a well be contaminated by standing idle as a community landowner built a septic system practically on top of their well, contaminating all the water. When we presented them with our concern over this, the community leaders responded passionately: why should many suffer for the mistakes of so few? They knew things had gone wrong, but insisted they could do better. Of all the communities, this one seemed the least organized but the most compelling. Their passion and need was scribbled clearly across every individual’s face, but they continually bickered over possible solutions and had the worst track record. I wanted to believe in them, and more than anything I wanted to help them improve their community, but what we saw frightened us. Were they less organized simply because a larger pool of individuals showed up to the meeting we held with them (at least twice the size of our meeting in Carrizal), leading to more discord? Was our assessment of their poor leadership accurate, maybe things were just as bad in Carrizal but we hadn’t seen it? Unknown after unknown. But we were two days away from making a decision.
Finally there was Cajuil. Cajuil was about as organized as one could hope for. When we first met with their leaders, it was only six people. But those six people described to us a community which had worked tirelessly to maintain the scant water resources they had, reverse engineering past development projects to improve water supply and organizing themselves into small units that worked each day to maintain the structure of their water supply. We weren’t sure their need was as great, but we believed this was a community that could make for strong and competent partners. Or that’s what we saw anyway. But this get’s back to the challenge.
While we tried to gain a comprehensive understanding of each community, collecting comparable data on each, comparing their leaders, needs, and the meaning of their track record is to make assumptions. Don’t misunderstand me, we used as impartial, logistical, and methodological of an approach as we possibly could. But it, like all engineering work, is based on assumption and extrapolation. Was our baseline data good enough? Well, I can only provide a half answer. It is as good as we could hope for it to be. That is all any engineer or development worker can ever promise, anyone who proclaims more is lying to him or herself and to you. We rely on guesswork, but smart guesswork. Upon careful reflection of what makes for a beneficial and sustainable project, we chose Cajuil as our partner community. We feel they will be strong partners because we feel their incomparable organizational structure and clear passion to help their community will make for a partnership where together we can make lasting changes in their community.
As we move forward with this project, I can promise there will be more unknowns and challenges as we strive to understand what it takes to create lasting change. But after this trip, designed to establish our baseline assumptions and to determine the variables that will feed into an equation for success, I am confident that our band of students and this community has and will take every measure possible to ensure the success of this project and this partnership.
Written by Corinne Lowe