Portrait of the student as an agent for social good

Civil engineering student Christina Radyo says her engineering co-op placement as Junior Fellow with Engineers Without Borders Canada opened her eyes to the bigger role engineers play in social change. Photo: Jason Franson.

“Engineers are seen as focusing on infrastructure and building, like that’s their only role in the world,” says Christina Radyo. “But the truth is that how we go about building has a lot to do with the sustainability of a project.”

Radyo, who just started the fourth year of her civil engineering (co-op) program, is the latest University of Alberta student to take part in the junior fellowship program of Engineers Without Borders Canada.

Reflecting on her four-month placement in Malawi with EWB, Radyo readily admits that the experience “completely shattered any ideas I had about international development, in a good way.” It also changed her understanding of the role engineers can play in that development.

From early May to late August 2017, Radyo was based primarily in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, where she worked for an EWB venture called WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) Catalysts doing research, writing reports and interviewing government representatives and other NGO workers about the systemic gaps and obstacles in Malawi’s water sector.

Given her civil engineering background, you might have expected Radyo’s work with WASH Catalysts to involve drilling boreholes or setting up gravity-fed water systems. In fact, EWB Canada doesn’t have any infrastructure projects in Africa—or anywhere else, for that matter.

Founded in 2000 on the premise of “engineers doing good for the world via access to technology,” the organization’s vision has broadened over time, along with the expertise of its members.

Today EWB Canada describes itself as “an incubator for social change,” focused on addressing the underlying systems and processes that support critical infrastructure. Not all of its members are engineers, but the work they do still requires system-wide thinking, analytical skills and creative problem solving.

This systems-based approach to international development holds massive appeal for Radyo, especially now that she’s seen the results of infrastructure projects run amok in Malawi. As she explains it, the country’s rural water and sanitation sector faces several challenges, but a lack of boreholes isn’t one of them.

“Right now, the water sector in Malawi is being run by a projectized approach. That means that water service delivery in Malawi is primarily maintained by NGOs, but NGOs have projects, so they’re only there for a few years, and then they leave,” she says.

“A lot of emphasis is placed on infrastructure, on drilling more holes, because that’s like a tangible result. But the issue we’re seeing isn’t with there not being enough boreholes, it’s with the maintenance of them, because a lot of them are non-functioning.”

Since launching in 2014, WASH Catalysts has worked with district level governments and key development partners to shift the rural water and sanitation sector in Malawi away from a series of projectized approaches to a system that is institutionally sustainable. “What we wanted as an organization was to see these water service delivery responsibilities shift from NGOs onto the government, because they’re a permanent institution,” she explains.

One of Radyo’s biggest takeaways from her placement in Malawi is that collaboration—with government, NGOs and other local stakeholders—is key to the development of sustainable infrastructure and systems.

“How an engineer working in international development chooses to go about their projects and how they choose to work with people can have really big effects, in ways they may not think of at first,” she says. “There’s a lot of NGOs that aren’t doing it properly and completely bypass government, and they’re just doing more harm than good.”

EWB junior fellows are expected to be leaders overseas, as well as in their own communities upon their return. As a returned junior fellow, Radyo is now responsible for running the recruitment process to find the U of A’s junior fellow for 2018 and supporting the successful applicant as they get ready for their placement.

Applications for the 2018 junior fellowship program are now open and will close on Friday, October 13, 2017. Students interested in joining EWB or applying for the junior fellowship should email Christina Radyo at cradyo@ualberta.ca