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Engineering Skills Are The Key To Achieving Sustainable Development And Reducing Foreign Aid Dependency

16/01/2017 17:22

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Craster International, the largest foundry and machine shop in Zimbabwe. Copyright; Dr Wilson Nyemba

Nearly half of the world's population, or more than 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day and more than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty -- less than $1.25 a day. This problem is most pronounced in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 218 million people are living in extreme poverty and many ordinary people still lack access to water, power and healthcare. Currently, many of the areas that experience such poverty rely on foreign aid to tackle these problems. This is understandably focused on short-term poverty alleviation and healthcare, like vaccinations and food provision. But this can never be sustainable. It is only by building capacity, and providing long term investment in skills and infrastructure, that we will begin to reduce dependence on foreign aid and make progress towards self-sufficiency.

Engineers have a huge role to play in this. Engineers extract water from source, distribute it and ensure it is clean and safe to drink. They make the machines that manufacture medicines. Engineers convert power, be it hydroelectric, thermal or nuclear and distribute it to the public, and are doing so in increasingly green ways. Engineers build the mobile technology and networks that allow us to communicate and share knowledge. They also design and make the vehicles and planes we travel in, and the roads we travel on. But currently, there are simply not enough engineers to develop the infrastructure needed. Data from UNESCO shows that developed and industrialised countries have between twenty and fifty scientists and engineers per 10,000 population, while some African countries have as low as one engineer for the same population count. These countries currently lack the skills to change the situation they are in.

Clearly, if we are going to achieve long-term progress in tackling inequality, achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and improve the lives of ordinary people, we need to improve engineering education. According to the UNESCO Report on Engineering: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities for Development, there is currently a prevalence of passive and demotivating traditional teaching methods and of outdated teaching materials particularly in Africa. What's more, the absence of links between higher education institutions and industry creates qualified but unemployable graduates.

Better equipped and skilled engineers can make a difference to countries across the world - through the development of local projects like improving access to water, power and healthcare, as well as by improving infrastructure nationwide. Improving engineering education will require investment too, but as the Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice maintains, engineering education in areas like Southern Africa can also be improved through encouraging collaborations between higher education institutions and industry, to ensure relevance of curricula to industrial practice and development needs. Take sanitation as an example. The University of Zimbabwe had struggled for years to get enough water from the City of Harare, and water shortages frequently led to campus closures. When the university teamed up with industry to give its engineering students and staff practical skills with up-to-date equipment, the engineering faculty were able to develop a groundwater system that now generates 100% of the water that the university needs.

Profile raising and funding for promising engineers can also help to foster engineering innovation. Dr Askwar Hilonga, the winner of the first Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation for example, developed a low-cost bespoke water filter that removes 99.9% of bacteria to give local communities safe drinking water. A finalist of the same prize, Samuel Malinga, developed new septic technology that makes sanitary toilets affordable for everyone and is now being rolled out across Africa. Receiving financial and business support, as well as publicity, has enabled these entrepreneurs to scale up their technologies, reach many more people and cut the risk of waterborne diseases in rural areas.

These engineers have provided innovations to make a difference in the absence of major infrastructure, or to bridge the gap until it is implemented. What's more, they have empowered local communities by giving them a role in the improvements, whether directly (in the case of the groundwater project) or indirectly - the water filter, for example, has enabled entrepreneurs to sell clean water to their communities. Such participation and transfer of knowledge will pave the way for long-term improvements that are sustainable.

Of course, sanitation is just one area in which fostering engineering skills is helping to make a difference on a local, national and international level. With rapid changes in industrial and economic development posed by globalisation, technical education systems and support also need to serve many other areas and adapt to keep pace with the changes and continue to equip students with relevant skills. This was discussed at length at the Engineering a Better World conference, hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering last year, which brought together engineering and international development professionals to help tackle the world's biggest problems sustainably.

By investing more in engineering skills, as well as seeking out collaborations to improve them, we will continue to encourage the development of amazing innovations that tackle the world's biggest problems, and reduce the dependency on foreign aid.

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