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Community Connections in a Changing Climate: Engineers Without Borders and the World Bank

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Community Connections Campaign logoI have a confession: I’m an engineer. Wandering the halls of the World Bank it’s sometimes best to hide this. After all economists, and more recently, graduates of international policy programs, run the world, and ‘thinking like an economist’ is a powerful skill. Engineers are usually not the glitzy ones; we are more akin to beavers - hard working, somewhat plodding, and dutiful.

Engineers are so innocuous we don’t even have a good set of jokes like lawyers. Everyone who’s gone to university with engineers will have a story or two about too boisterous an engineer, maybe with insufficient social graces, who was painted purple or put a cow in the library as part of some initiation right. When engineering first started there were only two types, military and civil. Civil was a discipline, not a character trait.

One thing that those ‘civil’ engineers do well though is build stuff (back to the beaver analogy). Engineers are tasked with the building – and even more importantly, the day-to-day running – of our cities. This job is now getting much more challenging. First, in the next twenty years we need to build cities for an additional 2 billion residents, and second, we need to do this in a changing climate where sea level and temperatures are rising far faster than our ability to respond.

Dealing with climate change and urbanization is now such a monumental task that old ways of working are no longer up to the task. New partnerships are needed. The World Bank’s annual Community Connection Campaign that was just launched again this week is one small but illustrative example of how we are responding to the need to build our cities differently in the climate change age.

The World Bank has an impressive community connections campaign (CCC) – since its inception in 2003 staff have provided more than $8.4 million to about 500 charities. Last year alone, staff made 5176 pledges of $1.6 million that was matched dollar-for-dollar by the Word Bank Group (WBG). All of the charities have local offices and the majority carries out their work in the Washington metro area, but about a quarter are international in focus. The largest single recipient of staff contributions by far is Doctors Without Borders (DWB) USA.

Last year I was volunteered to be the CCC staff link in our Department. A little encouragement is often needed to get at least 50% of staff to participate in the program – this is the limit needed, that if surpassed, the funds are matched 100% by WBG. I noticed how much we supported DWB (also a great organization) but Engineers Without Borders (EWB) was missing from the list of possible organizations for selected support. This became a special challenge to me as I was part of a World Bank water and sanitation project in Haiti a few years ago where we were able to mobilize two EWB volunteers, a husband and wife team from Quebec. The project had enormous challenges and results were limited, but without a doubt the EWB volunteers made things happen and definitely enhanced the project’s results. Their involvement with the local technicians and community members had more impact than almost anything.

Much of the world’s charity support for development is targeted to the rural poor. This is understandable but with the enormous challenges cities now face in responding to the rate of urbanization and the growing impacts of climate change, maybe we need new programs for cities as well. The EWB program included in this year’s World Bank community connection campaign does just that. The support will be specifically targeted to help improve basic service delivery in developing country cities. In light of climate change (adaptation and mitigation) the priority for these services has never been higher.

Solid waste, for example, is one of those things that does not often get discussed in climate change conferences. But solid waste contributes more than 10% of the world’s methane, a particularly troublesome GHG, it clogs drains which are even more important as cities deal with more flooding, and it is a leading cause of local air pollution and respiratory problems in poorer cities. Job one for a city to prepare for climate change is to improve solid waste management. Not all that glamorous, but the first priority of the World Bank supported EWB volunteers.

Water supply, solid waste, drainage – may not be as sexy as a good looking aid worker (they always are in the ads) arriving at a remote village, or a dedicated doctor holding a crying baby. But the lower key ‘brown agenda’ of basic services needs a ‘shot in the arm’ as we strengthen our cities to respond to their new demands. The WBG and our partner MDBs are getting more active in cities with our lending and advisory programs. And now, with the help of EWB, we can also be more active in these cities through our community contributions.



In some ways an engineer can be grateful. When I was in B-school financial engineering was hot, and look at it now! And that pretty aid worker 30 years from now...who knows? We have been relying on engineers in one form or another since the invention of the wheel (and subsequently sliced bread).

Submitted by Dan on
Thanks David True, financial engineering may not have been the best thing since sliced bread. Hopefully the really smart ones will now help cities manage their challenges instead of designing algorithms for Wall Street. It would be great to have a new group of graduates combining B-school and engineering skills to better enable local governments to supply basic services to all. Cheers, Dan

Dan, thanks so much for this post. I am a friend of Jean Luc and Annie who spent a year in your project in Haiti, and your words will definitely be appreciated. I've forwarded your post to them. I wanted to point out that different EWBs around the world have different approaches to development, and that although "getting things done" is important, HOW we are getting them done is of utmost importance. The approach Jean Luc and Annie took is reflective of the values of EWB Canada. We have a failure report to learn on what works and what doesn't ( and We strongly believe that co-creating innovations with local institutions, and investing in local leaders (the HOW) is what makes a difference in the relevancy, appropriateness and durability of interventions. In fact, it's also what makes it possible to become systemic, and diffuse through broken markets. You mentioned that what will remain in Haiti is the change created from Jean Luc and Annie engaging with the local officers. I believe that as well. Yet I haven't heard the details of the project that will be supported by WBG so far. It's not an EWB Canada project for what I know (I'm director of EWB's African programs) so I'd love to hear exactly HOW the project being funded will be carried out, so that I can lend my engineer's mind to providing feedback on whether it has a chance to create lasting and positive change at a systemic level :) Thanks again for this post! Boris

Submitted by Dan on
Boris Thanks for the feed back. Agree completely, all sustainable leadership comes from local efforts. I still haven't figured out all the different EWB programs - hopefully, the more engineers that sit down and talk to each other (and others) the better. The WBG effort is to support EWB International through EWB USA for basic service delivery in cities (starting in African cities and hopefully also involving seasoned engineering mentors). Would be great to get your engineering mind providing feedback. Cheers, Dan

Hi Dan, Great post! It inspired a bit of pride for the engineer in me. I just wanted to make a small clarification: the two volunteers you met in Haiti were some of the first volunteers from EWB Canada. However, I assume the volunteers you're supporting to do solid waste management work are from EWB USA. These organizations are fundamentally quite different, as you can see from a quick perusal through their websites ( and I assume WB employees prefer to donate to EWB USA for tax purposes, but I invite you to explore the differences between the two organizations in more depth. I'm curious to hear your analysis! Cheers, Erin

Submitted by Dan on
Thanks Erin Most WB employees get no tax benefit for contributing to CCC (honest ;-) Yes, familiar with the differences between EWB Canada, EWB USA and EWB International (but would be good to get more details). The WB program will exclusively be international and will start in African cities. Happy to discuss further. Cheers, Dan

Dan, I was redirected here from your LinkedIn profile. I was amused by "Civil was a discipline, not a character trait". Next regarding lack of discussion on Solid Waste, I'm working with the Clinton Global Initiative and we're planning to write a paper on the impacts of solid waste management on different aspects of public life. Malaria is also in the list in some places of the world (which is not very intuitive speaking about SWM)! And we're planning to discuss only the impacts to create awareness rather than trying to suggest solutions and sidetrack required discussion! Regarding Air Pollution: In Mumbai alone, open burning of MSW releases 23,000 tons every year (tons and not kilos) of particulate matter, hydrocarbons (includes dioxins and furans), carbon monoxide, and sulfur oxides. and this is in just one city! check this picture ( to see how its effecting the residents (in this picture a school going boy) in Hyderabad city in India. It definitely needs more discussion -Ranjith

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