Published on Sustainable Cities

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

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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.



Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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