Our goal is to collaborate with the community, rather than serve the community.
Roy Anderson, a mechanical engineer in Frederick, Maryland, has been volunteering since college in his local community. After joining Bechtel, he jumped at the chance to put his technical knowledge and skill sets to good use with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Mid-Maryland Professional Chapter. He started out helping write grant applications and raising money for EWB projects, before long Roy had joined the project team to take a role with project planning and design development, and took over as chapter treasurer in 2015.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I’ve been inspired by the people I’ve met during my time as a volunteer. Our EWB chapter is full of dedicated individuals who do the work for the right reasons. And not only our chapter, but the individuals in Uganda who we work with to deliver a quality project. This includes our partners in country which include a local non-governmental organization (NGO) and the community we’re working with. They’ve shown me the worth of what we’re trying to accomplish which drives my efforts every day.
What activities have you been involved in?
As the president of EWB Mid-Maryland chapter, I’ve had a hand in basically all the chapter related activities which primarily comprise of fundraising, coordination with other EWB chapters, and of course the project. The project involves providing a clean water supply for a village in Southwest Uganda. I’ve been on two assessment trips and co-authored the corresponding pre- and post-trip reports that we use to document findings and detail how they affect the project moving forward. We’re currently in the design phase of our project which allows me to use my mechanical engineering background to help design a functional water distribution system.
What did you find most surprising about your experience as a volunteer?
The negative effect that a culture of foreign aid and charity can have on those they are trying to help. Many efforts to simply give food or clothing actually end up undermining the local economy as a flood of free goods hits the market and derails the local market for these items. It’s certainly a complex problem to fully understand. Even in our circumstance where we are providing a clean water system, we are completely focused on community involvement, contribution, and ownership. This includes volunteer labor hours, capital cost contribution, and donated land to ensure the sustainability of the project. I’ve seen with my own eyes broken hand pumps in shallow wells that result when a charitable organization attempts to implement a quick fix to the water problem. There’s no community ownership and no accountability so a broken pump will go unfixed.
Therefore, our goal is to collaborate with the community, rather than serve the community, so that together we can determine what system they think will meet their needs and what type of system they can realistically maintain and fix when the time comes. This means demonstrating fundraising capabilities by contributing a portion of the upfront capital cost of the project. This also means entirely locally sourced materials so that any replacement parts can be purchased in country. It seems that sometimes these lessons are not learned or are not properly applied, and it leads broken systems despite the best intentions of those who provided them.
What was the most rewarding part?
I hope the most rewarding part will be when we shake hands with the village leader and turn on the tap for the first time. So far, I can say that the relationships I’ve built both with my fellow chapter members, partner community members, and partner NGO have meant the most to me.
What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of your volunteer activity?
So far, communication between our chapter and our partners in Uganda has been very difficult which is understandable given the circumstance. There is a lot coordination that needs to happen before we can implement a system that is agreed upon with all interested parties. Of course, time is always tough to come by as well. A lot of work has to go into the engineering and EWB reporting process that our chapter members are accomplishing on top of their full time jobs, which again speaks to their dedication to the work.
What has been the most important lesson you've learned?
Be thankful for infrastructure. Paved roads, reliable electricity, running water. I sometimes take these things for granted, but they are fundamental pillars of modern civilization, and there are still those out there without access.
Do you think you inspire others to volunteer? In what way do you think you inspire others to volunteer?
I’m not sure if I inspire people or not, but the people who inspire me are the ones who put in the time and dedication to do thorough and well thought out work. I hope to inspire others by doing the same.
Engineers Without Borders
Engineers Without Borders works with local nonprofit partners and disadvantaged communities in nearly 50 countries to implement simple, sustainable engineering programs that help a community develop its human potential. Bechtel has established partnerships with EWB organizations in five countries: Australia, Chile, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.