Engineers Without Borders -

Engineers Without Borders

I wish I had never become an engineer.

Don't get me wrong — it's a great profession, a wonderful outlet for my woefully non-artistic creative streak. But advancing middle age confronts one with mortality, and a certain dissatisfaction with not having done enough that's truly good and important in this troubled world. We create wonderful products, but few of these really have much impact in people's lives. How many lift people out of disease and poverty? Many of us create the playthings of the affluent or short-lived instruments and devices to maximize a company's profits.

Watching the TV program ER , I realized that those emergency room doctors are much like us, but have the best of all jobs. They get to profoundly help people, but without living in squalor in a third world country or without even sacrificing a nice income. A win-win situation.

These doctors are akin to hackers. They go in and do something quickly, without a lot of paperwork. They see the results of their efforts in minutes or hours. Multiple gunshot wounds, a car accident, a fall, all sorts of traumas mobilize the docs. By the end of the show (yeah, yeah it's only TV but we're allowed to dream) the patient is out of the ICW, healing and happily surrounded by family and friends. Sounds rather like programming in Forth or writing a quick C app to me. Jump right in, furiously do our software magic, and presto! We're done, the product works, and it's time to move on to the next task.

Contrast that to your family physician who deals with non-specific infections and long-term vague problems that defy understanding or solutions — rather like cranking out a product with a million lines of code. Fun? Hardly.

But with neither the desire nor ability to go to medical school, I'm left wondering what I can do for others.

Charity is one important outlet. Recently, Bill Gates traveled to India, kicking off $100m in anti-AIDS donations. Though his company is oft reviled in our industry, I admire the man for his generosity.

Years ago I realized that the typical American model of charity is flawed; we're too private in our giving. Example is the best way to lead, so over dinner one night I talked to the kids about one of my favorite organizations, Save the Children. My at-the-time 8 year old daughter was entranced; she wondered if it was possible to help an individual child. A little research proved that true; since then she has given up half her meager allowance to help feed a Bangladeshi youngster named Jewel. I am proud of her for that.

But just giving cash isn't satisfying. Engineers are doers; we work with our hands and minds. Writing checks is important, but what can we do to help others?

An organization named Engineers Without Borders, patterned after Doctors Without Borders, is just the ticket for people who want to get involved. Their goal is to harness engineers, from students to professionals, in projects aimed at helping poor communities around the world. Typical projects include creating small systems to pump water in villages, improving lighting for classrooms and creating energy-generating microturbines.

Each year a few intern positions open for student engineers to work in-country. What a great opportunity for a young person! Especially in today's economic climate — why not head off to some fascinating corner of the world for a year, do some good, and learn a lot?

Engineers Without Borders, like most such organizations, doesn't do their work with the drama of a TV show like ER . They go about improving the lots of people's lives slowly, without fanfare or much acclaim.

They are a Canadian organization with no chapters outside that country. Times are tough now; people are focused on hanging on to their jobs. But when things improve and the economic panic subsides, I'd sure like to see them expand south at least, and then even more internationally, to harness the worldwide engineering expertise. We can invent cell phones, space shuttles, and the Internet, as well a way for a village that has lived for generations with cholera to get a clean source of water.

So what do you think? What is our responsibility to improve conditions throughout the world? Isn't it reasonable to expect that our first world wealth creates a higher obligation for us?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Feedback:

Remember… some countries don't want “us Amsericans” in their country, no matter how good the improvement might be. How can “we” help when western culture is not appreciated in some countries, due to religous differences. The third world “tribes” are still fighting with one another and some cultrues see us as trying to “change them” to the western ways. Those who want our help should “ask for it”. We cannot just impose our way on people because they live sub-standard to us. The best we can do is make an offer to show them what we can do for them, if they don't want it, then try a second time. If they refuse the second offer, don't make a third offer to help!

Steve King


An engineer's income puts them in a pretty nice position relative to the rest of the world (and, indeed, a lot of Americans too!). For those of us whose personal responsibilities prevent us from living in-country for a year, why not sponsor an intern for Engineers Without Borders?

Many of the world's critical needs revolve around access to fresh drinking water, dealing with raw sewage and general cleanliness, and improving crop production. A USA engineer's desire to “do something” often runs afoul when presented with the icky, nasty tasks that the world needs someone to help with. The next best thing is to remove any obstacles that prevent someone who *can* do the work from going out and getting it done.

In addition to the Habitat for Humanity-type projects, soup kitchens, and countless other ways you can get involved locally (and in doing so, provide a good example for your children to do likewise), dedicate 10-20% of your _income_ to helping others make a difference. Any less than that, and you're contributing out of convenience, not out of your personal values. (And kudos to your daughter, who's at 50% already!)

Yes, you'll probably have to back off from the shiny new SUV and the house that you'll “grow into”. But $250/yr will feed a Haitian family for a year— would you look them in the eye and say that you'd rather spend that on a car payment instead?

Bill Gatliff

Great idea! To show to the society that we are capable of contributing back to them. Most people think that engineers invent machines. This sort of voluntary work helps public to know what engineers do and make us feel proud of what we are doing. Life is just not about money alone!!

Adam RizalEngineerESOL

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