Engineers Without Borders 

A photo of us working on the road in Bolivia in 2008, probably taken by Jeff Walters. The text is the addition of the University of Washington Columns magazine which profiled our work. (I'm on the left, ineffectually using a shovel and trying to keep up with far older Bolivians.) 

A photo of us working on the road in Bolivia in 2008, probably taken by Jeff Walters. The text is the addition of the University of Washington Columns magazine which profiled our work. (I'm on the left, ineffectually using a shovel and trying to keep up with far older Bolivians.) 

In 2008, I was selected to join a group of engineering students and a professional mentor affiliated with the University of Washington chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UWS) to travel to a very remote region of Bolivia, near the village of Yanayo in Northern Potosí to assist in the improvement of a dirt road that provided the only access for motor transport to the clinics, schools, and markets beyond the village. Working with our hands and a dumptruck, we built ditches, rock walls, and small rolling dips. 

It was a transformative experience for me, something I describe a bit here. It opened my eyes to the very simple reality that a world outside of my own exists, even if I still interpreted the poverty and inequity I witnessed in cliched terms. But something still clicked - I couldn't help but notice the similarities between the the everyday experiences of life in a rural indigenous village with the stories of my father's village, three decades past in a land thousands of miles away that I'd never seen. 

At the time, I was barely qualified to do anything - let alone pretend to be un ingeniero. Yet I continued to work with Engineers Without Borders, helping with the design of a rural water system in 2009 and managing a team of students who implemented a $25,000 addition to the road project in 2010. 

The full report from that project, produced for our donor, is available here.

My work with EWB-UWS was a principal part of my motivation to create the Critical Development Forum and forced me to deepen my critique of the very well-intentioned voluntourism I had participated in. But I cannot escape the catch-22 of being grateful for having gone to Bolivia in the first place - without that experience, I may well have still been focused on engineering rocket ships for my extraterrestrial ambitions.