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Engineering for a better world

UNESCO and WFEO focus on capacity building in developing nations in order to increase the numbers of engineers and break the cycle of poverty.
Problems that can be addressed by technology are a double challenge in the developing world. In many cases, the problem itself is compounded by the lack of domestic talent to apply to it.
According to Russel C. Jones, President of the Committee on Capacity Building of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), training more engineers in developing  countries will provide “a solid base of technologically prepared people” that is the first critical step on the path to eventual self-sufficiency.
“Such a base will facilitate the infusion of foreign capital through attraction of multinational companies to invest in the developing country, assist in making the most of foreign aid funds, and provide a basis for business development by local entrepreneurs,” says Jones.
To improve engineering education and economic stimulation, UNESCO and WFEO’s Committee on Capacity Building have created a new international program called Engineering for a Better World. This program includes a cadre of educational opportunities, such as engineering workshops, entrepreneurial training, accreditation systems, internships, electronic delivery of courses, educational exchange programs, and formation of new “Engineering Without Borders” cells, an international humanitarian nonprofit that focuses on building capacity and implementing sustainable engineering projects in developing nations.
Currently, Engineering for a Better World has three primary areas of priority. The first high priority program, the African Initiatives, seeks to advance the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals by tailoring specialized projects for sub-Saharan Africa. The second program, Engineering for America, is being carried out with the Organization of American States to enhance education and practice in Latin America and the Caribbean. And the third, the Electronic Initiatives, utilizes electronic communications so that educators from around the world can exchange curriculum and discuss solutions for engineering programs in the developing world.
“This is a chicken-and-the egg issue. Increased demand for engineers will result only when there is a sufficient pool of well qualified graduates to attract direct foreign investment, multinational corporation operations, offshore outsourcing from developed countries, and entrepreneurial startups,” Jones says.
“In addition to increasing the number and quality of engineering graduates, and pursuing strategies to have good local jobs available, developing countries need mechanisms to apply research and development results from local universities and companies for economic gain. Such mechanisms as incubators and small business development financing are needed in the mix,” he continues.
While many are optimistic that improved engineering education combined with sustainable economic development will yield results in the developing world, some are concerned that investments in education will result in increased brain drain, the phenomenon where trained professionals leave their home countries to seek success in the developed world. Jones concedes that brain drain may be alarming in the first few years of new educational programs, but he believes that with time brain drain levels off.
“One need only look at examples from India and South Korea to see the effect of concerted efforts to enhance the education of engineers and technology graduates on the economies of these two countries. At the 2004 meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers the South Korean delegation to the Capacity Building Forum presented the results of South Korea’s investment over the past three decades in the number and quality of engineering graduates. In 1970, South Korea had about 6,000 engineering graduates. In 1980, these were increased to 14,000. By 1990, the figure had jumped to about 80,000. When plotted against South Korea’s per capita GNP growth, the number of engineering graduates almost directly parallels the growth of the South Korean economy, offset by a few years. This data appears to show a direct cause and effectinvestment in building a well qualified and sufficiently large pool of engineers leads to sustainable economic development,” he says.
Additionally, as more good jobs are available in a developing nation, brain drain is further countered by the return of engineers who left their home country years ago to seek success abroad. “As technology based economies grow in developing countries, one important source of top talentin addition to new engineering graduatesis the return of previous emigrants from the diaspora. Several countries that are developing well have benefited from the return of former citizens who see new opportunities in their home countries, and bring back foreign experience and network contacts to the benefit of their home countries,” Jones says.
But to continue the growth of sustainable economies in developing nations, Jones emphasizes that every program “should include significant coverage of entrepreneurshiphow to start, operate, and grow a small business.” With healthy growth of local business, developing economies have the independence and the resources to ensure that their educational and economic progress remains sustainable.
By combining international and local efforts to build capacity and promote sustainable economic growth, even countries with substantial obstacles can make progress towards meeting the basic needs of their citizens and creating an environment that fosters technological innovation that will improve the local and global communities.
Jessica Locken is a freelance writer based in the Seattle area.