Published: July 20, 2020

Global Engineers BookThe Global Engineers: Building a Safe and Equitable World Together, is inspired by the opportunities for engineers to contribute to global prosperity. This book presents a vision for Global Engineering, and identifies that engineers should be concerned with the unequal and unjust distribution of access to basic services, such as water, sanitation, energy, food, transportation, and shelter. As engineers, we should place an emphasis on identifying the drivers, determinants, and solutions to increasing equitable access to reliable services. Global Engineering envisions a world where everyone has safe water, sanitation, energy, food, shelter, and infrastructure, and can live in health, dignity, and prosperity.

This book seeks to examine the role and ultimately the impact of engineers in global development. Engineers are solutions-oriented people. We enjoy the opportunity to identify a product or need, and design appropriate technical solutions. However, the structural and historical barriers to global prosperity requires that Engineers focus more broadly on improving the tools and practice of poverty reduction and that we include health, economics, policy, and governance as relevant expertise with which we are conversant. Engineers must become activists and advocates, rejecting ahistorical technocratic approaches that suggest poverty can be solved without justice or equity.

Engineers must leverage our professional skills and capacity to generate evidence and positive impact toward rectifying inequalities and improving lives. Half of this book is dedicated to profiles of engineers and other technical professionals who have dedicated their careers to searching for solutions to global development challenges.

These professionals include Heather Fleming, a Navajo designer and the founder of Catapult Design, Chantal Iribagiza, a Rwandese engineer specializing in rural water supplies, Jean Ntzinda, a Rwandese environmental planner responsible for facilitating foreign corporate and donor supported programs, Avery Bang, an American civil engineer and CEO of Bridges to Prosperity, Doris Kaberia, a Kenyan expert in food security and pastoral livelihoods, Petros Birhane, an Ethiopian agricultural engineer and disaster relief expert, and Dan Hollander, an American hydrological engineer and former foreign service officer.

Together, these stories introduce the reader to the diverse opportunities and challenges in Global Engineering.

Part of the Springer Sustainable Development Goals Series book series (SDGS).

The Global Engineers:


Chapter 1: What is Global Engineering? 


This chapter presents Global Engineering, and identifies that as engineers we should be concerned with the unequal and unjust distribution of access to basic services, such as water, sanitation, energy, food, transportation, and shelter, and as engineers we should place an emphasis on identifying the drivers, determinants, and solutions to increasing equitable access to reliable services. Global Engineering envisions a world where everyone has safe water, sanitation, energy, food, shelter, and infrastructure, and can live in health, dignity, and prosperity. This chapter adapts and updates the 2019 publication in Sustainability, “Toward a New Field of Global Engineering” (Thomas, 2019).


Engineers are solutions-oriented people. We enjoy the opportunity to identify a product or need, and design appropriate technical solutions. This model can be effective in high-income regions where the engineering profession is complemented by communities with strong political capital and tax bases leveraged to provide essential government services such as water, sanitation, electricity, and roads; an enforced regulatory environment to maintain the quality and safety of these services; and business and consumer markets to purchase products and services. Such necessary social supports are often invisible to the engineer, whose education does not typically include crash courses in economics or policy. As a result, engineers are poorly equipped to address or even recognize the existence of structural gaps to providing public and private services in lower income settings.

The world today

There are abundant reasons to be optimistic about global development, public health and poverty reduction. The billions of people who have been vaccinated, the increasing number of people entering the middle class, and the myriad accomplishments cited in reports on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) all testify to the positive impact of current development policies and practice on economic growth, life expectancy, and overall prosperity (Rosling, Rosling and Rönnlund, 2018).

Global progress has been unambiguously impressive. Over the past 200 years, nearly every country and region in the world has progressed from poverty and low life expectancy to better financial and health outcomes (Figure 1). Likewise, global mortality among children five years old and younger (an important indicator of overall national public health) has shown dramatic declines for all major causes, including malaria, HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, neonatal complications, and birth defects (Figure 2). These clear trends can be interpreted optimistically as inevitable global progress.

Figure 1

Figure 1: GapMinder ( shows income levels (1-4) compared against life expectancy. Over the past 200 years, nearly every country and region in the world has progressed from the lower left toward the upper right, increasing in wealth and health. However, there remain clear disparities, highlighted by the concentration of countries in sub-Saharan Africa clustered in the lower left quadrant.  

However, while there is clear, unambiguous progress toward greater wealth, health, and prosperity globally, most of this success over the past 30 years has occurred in south and east Asia, and has been dominated by economic growth in India and China, while sub-Saharan African countries continue to show low income levels (Figure 1), underlining the need to question if current global development policies and efforts are effective at reducing poverty and improving health globally.

Figure 1.2

Figure 2: Global reductions in mortality among children aged under 5 over the past 30 years (data from and

Today, over half the world’s population still lives on less than $5.50 a day (The World Bank, 2018). The burden of disease in low-income countries is overwhelmingly attributable to environmental health issues including air quality and quality, sanitation, and disease vectors including malaria-carrying mosquitos (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 2019). While the fraction of the world’s population living in absolute poverty has decreased over the past 50 years, the absolute number of people in poverty – about 1 billion – has not changed over the last 30 years (Figure 3).

Figure 1.3

Figure 3: Number of people in extreme poverty by region from 1990 with projections to 2030. Note the nearly stable number of people in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa (

Most internationally funded development efforts focus on sub-Saharan Africa – home to over a billion people – however, the number of people in this region in extreme poverty has only increased over the same period. Indeed, the World Bank projects that, by 2030, about 500 million people will live in extreme poverty, with the majority living in sub-Saharan Africa (Figure 3). Of the 47 countries listed by the United Nations as “least developed”, 33 are in sub-Saharan Africa – over 70% (UNFCCC, 2020). The only least developed country (LDC) in the Americas is Haiti.

If a child under the age of 5 dies, there is a 99% chance that she was born outside of Europe or North America (UNICEF, 2018). At the current rate of development, and assuming the same economic policies, it will take over 200 years for everyone in the world to earn at least $5 per day. Furthermore, achieving this level of growth will require a 175-fold increase in global production and consumption of resources compared to 2010 levels (Woodward, 2015). The link between resource use and poverty is starkly illustrated in Figure 4, which shows the per-person carbon dioxide emissions for every country in the world, and Figure 5, which shows the global burden of disease per 100,000 people. These maps are practically mirror images of each other, with almost no energy use per person and dramatic disease burdens in sub-Saharan Africa.

Figure 1.4

Figure 4: Carbon dioxide emissions per capital for each country in the world in 2017. The United States remains the world’s largest emitter of carbon per capita, while energy use per person in sub-Saharan Africa barely registers (

Figure 1.5

Figure 5: The global burden of disease in Disability-Adjusted Life Years per 100,000 people, for 2017. The burden of disease is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. This chart appears to present the inverse picture of global per capita carbon dioxide emissions (

Foreign aid and philanthropy are promoted as part of the solution to these chronic challenges. Indeed, over $160 billion per year is provided by high-income countries to low-income countries in part to address these conditions (World Bank, 2019). Furthermore, tallying up all financial resources including aid, foreign investments, trade, debt cancellation, and remittances, over $2 trillion was transferred to developing countries in 2012, the last year for which a full dataset is available (Centre for Applied Research et al., 2015).

So why is poverty and its associated conditions of contaminated water and air, rural isolation, and lack of energy access so resistant? One startling answer is that financial outflows – resources provided from low-income countries to high-income countries – dramatically exceed inflows. Financial outflows, attributable to debt and interest payments, repatriation of corporate profits, and capital flight including trade misinvoicing and tax avoidance, accounted for over $5 trillion in 2012 (Centre for Applied Research et al., 2015).

This $3 trillion per year in total net outflows represents 18 times the annual global foreign aid budget. In sub-Saharan Africa, global net financial flows account for approximately $20 billion per year (Figure 6), roughly the annual budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In other words – low-income countries are net creditors to rich countries. Income inequality on this global scale is also felt within rich countries and by individuals. Oxfam reported in 2017 that the richest eight people have more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population (OXFAM, 2017). While many of these individuals are generous with their philanthropy, the global concentration of wealth is increasing.

Figure 1.6

Figure 6: Indicative financial flows to and from sub-Saharan Africa (2009 to 2017). Inflows include philanthropic giving, foreign direct investment, foreign aid, and remittances, with trade misinvoicing, tax avoidance and debt interest payments as financial outflows.

Beyond even the chronic barriers to poverty reduction, climate change is exacerbating and accelerating poverty in some regions of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) conservatively estimates that climate change-driven increases in temperature (heat waves), diarrhea, malaria, and malnutrition (crop failure) will result in over 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050 (World Health Organization, 2018). A further 100 million people could be pushed back into poverty by 2030 because of climate change(Haines and Ebi, 2019). Most of these deaths and hardships will be occur in developing countries, which are among the populations least responsible for climate change and least equipped to manage its impacts.

In this global context, it is not surprising that engineers, while motivated to make a positive impact, are poorly trained and equipped to address these structural barriers to poverty reduction, which can overwhelm the contributions of engineered products or services.

Put simply – no new water filter product, social business sanitation service, elementary school rainwater catchment tank, electricity grid, or lecture to a local government on the importance of water pump maintenance will make a dent in a system that precludes countries from developing empowered citizenry and robust tax bases that can support accountable governmental services.

The Engineer in the past

The Engineer’s first foray into the modern global development sector took the form of large-scale, top-down infrastructure such as electricity grids, dams, roadways, and water management systems, often implemented in former colonies. The perceived failure of this model, reflected in crumbling infrastructure in the 1970s, resulted in a pivot towards smaller scale engagement, based on community-level participatory development.

The response of engineering to community participatory development was provided by E.F. Schumacher, a British economist who coined the term “appropriate technology” in his book Small is Beautiful, published in 1973. An appropriate technology, according to Schumacher, is one that is small in scale, uses local materials, is energy efficient, environmentally sound, labor intensive, controlled by the community, and maintained locally. This well-intentioned approach sought to bypass the failures of large-scale development. Small-scale participatory development and appropriate technology models were adopted by many development agencies, and promoted as the most impactful and appropriate way to train engineers to engage in poverty reduction efforts (Amadei, Sandekian and Thomas, 2009; Thomas and Amadei, 2010).

These models, often referred to as participatory development, sustainable development, or appropriate technology, have an unfortunate common denominator – an assumption on the part of development funders, agencies, professionals, and volunteers that emerging economies are either not entitled to, or not capable of, developing in the same manner as the countries providing development advice.

Such fashionable approaches expect developing communities to somehow grow their economies, reduce disease burdens, educate a population, and engage in global trade, all without the benefit of carbon, plastics, or professional specialization. Even if these approaches are somehow viable, the development organizations and individuals promoting them rarely come from communities or countries that reflect these modalities.

Which is more appropriate – a water filter made out of locally procured, low-cost clay that employs local residents in producing, selling, and maintaining the filters, or an ultrafiltration membrane and plastic contraption produced in China?

This sounds like an easy choice. But what if the local ceramic filter has never been shown conclusively to improve health, while the imported Chinese filter has a strong track record in the epidemiology literature of improving the health of its recipients? Which choice would be more appropriate?

Or what about a locally produced stove built with local clay that has an emission profile no different from an open fire? Is it more appropriate than a clean, imported Chinese stove? Is a 500-watt solar panel really more appropriate than a similarly priced 2,000-watt diesel generator that is obtained through a pre-existing supply chain?

A strict definition of appropriate technology can result in pitfalls when rigorous, multidisciplinary trade evaluations are neglected. While the local stove or filter may check 9 out of 10 boxes for “appropriate technology,” it may fail to fulfil the fundamental purpose of the solution – to improve health. Recognizing this requires a simultaneous respect for public health, business, policy, and engineering expertise.

Today, a development agency would not think twice about promoting mobile technologies and off-grid solar energy, although neither fit the definition of appropriate technology. More current debates revolve around the appropriateness of importing higher quality, lower cost often-Chinese made products such as water filters and cookstoves, at the expense of local producers; or the effectiveness of giving away these kinds of health products versus charging consumers an (often subsidized) fee.

Unfortunately, over almost 50 years, appropriate technology and community participatory development has failed to eliminate or even substantially reduce the number of people living in poverty in developing countries. Meanwhile, the world has shrunk and technologies have advanced.

The terms “global engineer” (Amadei, 2014), “development engineering” (Nilsson, Madon and Sastry, 2014), “humanitarian engineering” (Mitcham and Munoz, 2010), and “peace engineering” (Amadei, 2019) have recently entered the lexicon of academia and professional disciplines.

Since 2001, Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA) has involved engineering students and professionals in extra-curricular and volunteer engagement in developing communities. This approach has been recognized as an important component of professional training (Bourn and Neal, 2008). However, there is increasing recognition that this approach is insufficient to train globally responsible engineers (Mintz et al., 2014), and that rigor equal to any other engineering discipline should be introduced at the curriculum level with engineers cross-trained in established development disciplines such as global health, economics, public policy, and social business (Nilsson, Madon and Sastry, 2014).

Human-centered design and product and service development, often linked to social business models, have also been promoted as new approaches updating the role of the engineering profession in global development. In 2014, experts at the University of California Berkeley coined the term “Development engineering”, promoting a model that links human-centered design, multidisciplinary teams, and user and community centric engagement towards product and service design (Nilsson, Madon and Sastry, 2014). Acknowledging the limitations of mono-disciplinary approaches, the authors advance the premise that development engineering builds “on techniques from engineering, development economics, behavioral science, and sociology,” and designs products and services on behalf of developing countries, while addressing market barriers and institutional failures, and promoting business models.

This product-centered focus can have complex outcomes. While evangelizing a community lens, well-intentioned entrepreneurs have released products that fail to address the symptoms or the causes of the issues they highlight, and instead attract resources to gimmicky solutions. Examples include the Play Pump, a merry-go-round water pump that was supposed to offer children a fun way to pump water and in reality often required women to walk the pump in circles (Stellar, 2010), and the One Laptop per Child initiative, which suggested that a cheap, no-frills laptop could be produced cost effectively for low-income classrooms (Robertson, 2018), but resulted in a dramatic decrease in mass produced, higher quality and functioning consumer laptops and tablets.

Furthermore, many engineering efforts on a community or product scale have required either volunteer or low-salaried engineering labor, which has the effect of reducing the professional depth of the contributions of engineers to global development. Meanwhile, larger scale infrastructure contracts in the United States for work in low- and middle-income countries are awarded to major engineering and technical contractors (e.g. AECOM, CH2MHill, TetraTech, Chemonics) that offer competitive salaries, but may not be mandated or capable of addressing longer term systemic development challenges.

An additional chronic limitation is the under-representation of engineers from low- and middle-income countries, with development programs often relying instead on short-term engagements by Western engineers.

While the literature contains laudatory case studies and attractive examples of successful products and services, in reality these are piecemeal patches to endemic structural challenges. Moreover, perceptions differ across professions: those involved in public health may think that the problem lies less with engineering than with behavior change; entrepreneurs often believe that failure to charge people for a product misses the mark; engineers are baffled by the “touchy-feely” aspects of development; and those working in public policy wonder how to manage unfunded mandates.

HeatherHeather Fleming, a Stanford-educated product designer, has struggled with these dynamics in her own career, working in Africa with funding from international donors, and now focusing on building entrepreneurial services at home on the Navajo reservation in the United States. Heather’s story is shared in Chapter 4 of The Global Engineers.

The Engineer of the future

The role of engineers in contributing to global poverty reduction and the SDGs requires an upgrade. The 2020 UNESCO report Engineering the Sustainable Development Goals frames this imperative: The engineering profession must embrace a new mission statement – to contribute to the building of a more sustainable, stable and equitable world… Together, we envision a world where all people have access to the services and resources necessary to live healthy, fulfilling lives and live in dignity and at peace, while working to preserve our global environment upon which we all depend. To do so, a new action-based blueprint for global engineering education, life-long education and practice is needed for the engineering profession to contribute to meeting the SDGs by 2030” (Amadei and Thomas, 2020).

Luckily, several complementary academic and professional fields, including Global Health and Development Economics, have a longstanding track record and philosophy from which we can learn.

Global Health as a field of study, research, and practice, is well established. The Consortium of Universities for Global Health describes it as a field that, “emphasizes transnational health issues, determinants, and solutions; involves many disciplines within and beyond the health sciences and promotes interdisciplinary collaboration; and is a synthesis of population-based prevention with individual-level clinical care.” Moreover, Global Health “places a priority on improving health and achieving equity in health for all people worldwide.”

Similarly, Development Economics, as embodied by the World Bank, is a field dedicated to studying and leveraging economic tools including taxes, trade, transfers, loans, and investment to improve economic growth in low-income countries.

The Global Health and Development Economics communities are grounded in method and tool development, evidence generation, and translation of findings into national and global policies. Many implemented policies, impact evaluations, or research studies conducted by economics or public health professionals are designed to address immediate needs and generate evidence to inform policies and funding decisions. Publications, methods, tools, and technologies are evaluated, tested, and refined, and consensus is built through meta-analysis and dissemination.

However, Global Health and Development Economics are imperfect models. Implementation and evaluation procedures are often designed and conducted with foreign funding and foreign experts, which can have the effect of reinforcing autocracies and creating a “tyranny of experts” (Peet, 2014). However, the professionalization of these fields has resulted in a high degree of influence both on policy and the public.

This book presents the case that Global Engineering should be concerned with the unequal and unjust distribution of access to basic services, such as water, sanitation, energy, food, transportation, and shelter, and as engineers we should place an emphasis on identifying the drivers, determinants, and solutions to increasing equitable access to reliable services. Global Engineering envisions a world where everyone has safe water, sanitation, energy, food, shelter, and infrastructure, and can live in health, dignity, and prosperity.

Global Engineering can be the professional and academic complement to Global Health and Development Economics. It focuses on broadly improving the tools and practice of poverty reduction, and includes health, economics, policy, and governance as relevant dimensions, requiring professional engineers to be conversant in these fields.

Fields of global engineering practice

The role of the engineer in addressing today’s global poverty challenges must be elevated. While village-scale interventions may have a positive impact on a community, product design may address some consumer demands, and large-scale infrastructure can in the short-term fill gaps in basic services, the structural constraints that perpetuate poverty require structural solutions.

It is challenging to strike a balance between forgiving optimism and paralyzing pessimism when examining the spectrum and arc of global development. As engineers, we want to be able to design and implement durable solutions. However, we need to broaden our perspective to include solutions to underlying structural problems.

The field of Global Engineering can contribute to addressing these structural issues, by developing and validating methods, tools, and standards that are broadly leveraged to increase poverty reduction. Technology development and demonstration, data collection, and impact evaluation can all contribute to evidence-based influence on policies and practice. Remote-sensing technologies are informing conversations about the impacts of global warming; data collection and analysis technologies support impact evaluations by generating robust findings on the effectiveness of interventions; systems engineering is expanding the engineer’s lens to more broadly consider institutions, governance, and financial planning in basic service delivery; and engineering education is embracing history, public health, and policy.

Global engineers must be taught to consider the historical and present causes of persistent poverty, instead of perceiving poverty as a stage of inevitable growth that can be helped along with conventional technical solutions. Such training will better inform the choices engineers make and help move the engineering sector away from a product and village-level focus towards working to address the root causes of poverty. Unequal distribution of wealth and resources, and continued exploitation of low-income communities by the global economic system, will undermine the effectiveness of small-scale programs and products.

The field of Global Engineering, while working toward improving policies and equity globally, need not be divorced from innovating solutions and designing technologies. Indeed, technological innovations can support knowledge generation, policy, and public participation in acknowledging and addressing the root causes of persistent poverty. This section provides several pertinent examples from a variety of institutions and applications, including those supported by the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Shelters and settlements

Engineering and design contributions to improved shelter and settlement design in global development have shifted in recent years from providing emergency and temporary assistance towards a more comprehensive, settlement-based approach. This shift corresponds to the increasing overlap in humanitarian assistance and longer-term development.

Typically, humanitarian and disaster relief efforts are deployed separately from conventional development efforts. Humanitarian relief usually occurs in response to natural disasters, conflicts, and displacements. Engineering in this context has focused on rapid response in camps for refugees and other displaced people, with the general intent to provide services on a provisional basis.

However, the humanitarian relief and global engineering and development sectors are increasingly overlapping and becoming more integrated. The drivers that displace people are often linked to chronic development challenges at home, including food and water insecurity and climate change. Some observers have described the engineering-related intersection of these sectors as “Peace Engineering,” (Amadei, 2019).

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance has a dedicated “humanitarian shelter and settlements” program that works to ensure safe and appropriate housing for disaster-affected communities, including considerations of culturally appropriate design, privacy, security, water and sanitation services, and future disaster risk reduction measures. This emerging application of global engineering “bridges the humanitarian–development nexus, from pre-disaster resiliency to emergency and temporary shelter, to the long-term development of sustainable housing and settlements,” (Javernick-Will, 2020).

Examples of such programs include Build Change (, which works to avert the worst impacts of natural disasters through constructing earthquake and typhoon-resistant housing; while architects at Mass Design Group ( apply high-end architectural design in settings that have typically not benefited from these skills, including the creation of a Partners in Health hospital in rural Rwanda. Meanwhile, the Revitalizing Informal Settlements and their Environments Program (RISE, integrates wetlands management with water and sanitation services to develop healthier environments for groups of informal settlements in Indonesia and Fiji.

Remote sensing

Space-based Earth observation instruments, while often funded, designed, and operated to serve the particular interests of wealthy countries, can provide benefits to developing countries at minimal additional cost. The insights gained from the analysis of remotely sensed data can result in practical actions as well as informing policy and public response.

A compelling example has been demonstrated in east Africa. Average rainfall in the region has declined over recent decades, decreased by over 20% in some areas since 1990 (Tierney et al., 2013). As a result, millions of people who live in the arid, drought-prone regions of the East African Rift Valley, including parts of Ethiopia and Kenya, suffer from a lack of safe, reliable, and affordable water (Viste, Korecha and Sorteberg, 2013; Shiferaw et al., 2014). The 2011 drought in East Africa caused food shortages for over 10 million people and as many as 260,000 deaths (Shabelle, 2011; Nicholson, 2014). The more recent 2016 drought in Kenya resulted in over 3 million people facing food insecurity (Uhe et al., 2017). These recent drought conditions represent an acute threat, and highlight the urgency of environmental changes driving water shortages, resulting in both public health and security emergencies.

Doris and PetrosDoris Kaberia, a Kenyan expert in food security and pastoral livelihoods, and Petros Birhane, an Ethiopian agricultural engineer and disaster relief expert, have dedicated their careers to building resilience in these regions of Africa. Petros and Doris’ share their stores in Chapters 8 and 9 of The Global Engineers.

Doris and Petros have also worked with the USAID-founded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), designed to combat the worst consequences of drought-driven food insecurity. The FEWS NET model is based in part on rainfall and crop health estimates using remote-sensing data to forecast food security stress based on estimated agricultural yields (Brown, 2008; Senay et al., 2014; FEWSNet, 2019). FEWS NET publishes food insecurity forecasts leveraged by national governments and international relief agencies to position food relief before the most severe consequences are felt by local populations.

Beyond the immediate, technocratic benefits of FEWS NET findings, such food insecurity models are raising repeated alarms. However, forecasts predicting humanitarian crises of increasing severity and frequency may have the effect of drawing political and public attention to the unjust impacts of climate change.

The NASA and USAID-funded SERVIR program similarly works to adapt satellite-based remote-sensing to map data, produce hydrologic and agronomic models, and develop decision aids to assist regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas. These tools have assisted with water resource management, flood prediction, and land use planning, while building the capacities of developing countries to develop and manage these technical services (Hardin et al., 2005; Irwin et al., 2008; Wang et al., 2011; Al-Hamdan et al., 2017).


Many development programs, from household-scale interventions to large-scale infrastructure, rely on third-party funders and lengthy processes for proposal development, implementation, and some measure of monitoring and evaluation. Despite increasing emphasis on the monitoring and evaluation phase, however, the reality of finite and time-bound funding often means that donors do not receive information about medium- and long-term impacts within developing countries which could inform their funding decisions.

This information and knowledge asymmetry can in part be addressed through improvements in the technologies used to collect ongoing data on the performance of interventions and the services delivered (Thomas, 2016). Technological innovations in the design, deployment, and validation of instrumentation, and furthermore the analysis of data generated, can be used to inform programs, policies, and donors.

For example, a set of ongoing activities in Ethiopia and Kenya aims at improving the functionality of rural water supplies, reducing the downtime between repair activities, and ultimately improving water services, reducing water insecurity, and reducing the impacts of drought. The intervention includes installing satellite and cellular-connected sensors monitoring the runtime of rural electric pumps, and linking these data through algorithms to online dashboards. The data are intended to be used by regional maintenance providers, utilities, national government entities, and international donors to both enable and support increased prioritization of repair services (Thomas et al., 2019).

ChantalChantal Irbagiza, a Rwandese engineer, helped pioneer these approaches when she became frustrated by the regular breakdowns of rural handpumps in Rwanda. Chantal’s career path is shared in Chapter 5. 

While instrumentation represents a technical intervention, the insights generated are intended to inform policymakers, local and national budgeting, and donor decisions in an effort to recognize and address the major gap between the funding available for infrastructure installation and the funding available for operation and maintenance, both at the scale of the programs themselves, and by informing discussions at a global level.

This effort requires the participation of engineers from a broad range of disciplines, including civil, environmental, mechanical, and electrical engineering and computer science, integrated with expertise in governance, foreign aid, and community strengthening. A series of evaluations, including an independent impact evaluation, are currently being conducted to study these efforts. The instrumentation used has the unusual status of being both part of the intervention’s theory of change, while also serving as the primary data collection tool used to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention activities.

Impact evaluation

The past decade has seen an increasing emphasis on the use of rigorously designed, independent experiments to evaluate development interventions. The academic fields of Global Health and Development Economics have been prolific in designing and administering rigorously designed experiments. Books such as Poor Economics, by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, recipients of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, review the sometimes counterintuitive results of these studies, which have catalyzed discussions among policymakers, national governments, donors, implementers, and researchers, and have attracted increasing participation from the public.

The results of these trials inform international policies, donor decisions, and implementation designs, and have leveraged best practices in academic research to build a body of knowledge over time. For example, a series of rigorous efficacy trials of chlorine interventions, including a multi-million dollar water and sanitation trial, funded by the Gates Foundation, recently reported no effect on diarrhea among children under the age of 2 (Luby et al., 2018; Null et al., 2018). Meanwhile, other recent trials have shown considerable impact on diarrhea among children aged under 5 associated with household water treatment (Barstow et al., 2018). While sometimes providing contradictory results, the outcome is overall growth in the body of knowledge and consensus over time regarding the most effective and appropriate health interventions.

Limitations of the most rigorously designed evaluations and randomized controlled trials (RCTs) include the often small-scale of the studies, the constraints in adjusting the intervention during the study, and challenges in generalizability. Furthermore, the results of these studies often take many years to be analyzed and published.

Global Engineering may have a role in advancing impact evaluation methods that may be more adaptable to programs, more scalable, and more quickly actionable. Engineers do not normally conduct RCTs in the design, testing, and validation of new technologies. Instead, they design standardized and customized testing routines, gather data on technology performance, conduct analysis, and build in safety factors. This approach, which is iterative and exploratory, is no less rigorous, as evidenced by the absence of RCTs supporting or refuting the effectiveness of parachutes(Smith and Pell, 2004). Engineers can adapt these approaches to evaluate global development interventions, especially those leveraging technological interventions. Study designs that allow for iterative implementation may still collect credible data. This approach is aligned with Implementation Science, an emerging field in medicine and public health. Implementation Science works to close the “know-do” gap between the demonstrated efficacy of a given health intervention and the actual observed effectiveness when deployed operationally (Fixsen et al., 2015).

Standards development

Engineering has a rich history of developing, validating, refining, and implementing standards. These standards evolve based on evidence, best practice, and consensus building. Published standards can support the objective evaluation of products and services. Within the global development space, engineers have contributed to standards for household drinking-water products (World Health Organization, 2011), household cookstoves (International Organization for Standardization, 2018), emergency shelters (UNHCR, 2006), and other products and services.

The development and support of standards represents a valuable contribution by engineers to global development, and can be further applied to other areas of sanitation, energy, water, transportation, and infrastructure.

Pay for performance

There is emerging alignment between rigorous performance measures and funding incentives. Such approaches can increase the accountability and scale of effective interventions (Sedlmayr, 2019). Sometimes these are called performance-based-payments, or formed as development impact bonds (DIBs).

One of the first DIBs in Africa was supported by USAID, the United Kingdom Department for International Development, the fund manager Instiglio, and the implementer Village Enterprise. The DIB is designed to facilitate the launching of small businesses in Uganda and Kenya, wherein “Village Enterprise gets up-front funding in the form of working capital from socially-motivated investors, and flexibility to adapt the program to maximize impact. USAID and other funders’ repayments to the investors are conditional on Village Enterprise delivering verifiable results such as improved income and consumption,” (

Engineers have helped design many of these performance based contracting approaches. For example, as part of a team, engineers designed the first carbon credit-financed household water treatment programs, implemented in Kenya and Rwanda. These programs required private funding for implementation, followed by monitoring and issuance of carbon credits tied to ongoing performance. The credits were sold to commercial and concessionary buyers including the World Bank (Thomas, 2016).

JeanJean Ntzinda, a Rwandese development professional, facilitated the introduction of these innovative funding mechanisms in Rwanda. Jean’s story is told in Chapter 6 of this book.

Recently, iDE, a US-based technology and social enterprise innovator, launched the first development impact bond for sanitation ( The $10 million-dollar fund is sponsored by the Stone Family Foundation, who provide funding to iDE to deploy sanitation interventions. Verified performance is then rewarded by USAID with payments back to the Stone Foundation.

Similarly, Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a US-based non-profit that designs and constructs pedestrian footbridges in developing countries, and is led by civil and structural engineers, has begun to transition from a reliance on charitable donations for one-off projects, to a scalable, accountable, and financially sustainable outcome-based model.

Isolation caused by lack of transportation infrastructure affects almost every facet of life for the rural poor. Without adequate transportation, families cannot access schools, health care, employment, or local markets to sell and buy goods. The World Bank estimates that nearly a billion people worldwide lack access to an all-season road within 2 kilometers, illustrating the scope of the problem and the challenge of addressing it at scale. B2P has constructed more than 300 footbridges in 20 countries, an infrastructure intervention that is cost-effective, durable, and relatively simple to scale. An economic impact evaluation of B2P’s footbridges in Nicaragua found a 35.8% increase in labor market income attributable to the access provided by the bridges (Brooks and Donovan, 2019).

B2P’s field program in Rwanda started in 2012 and has led to the completion of 47 footbridges that have created safe access for an estimated 274,000 people. Over the next five years, B2P plans to construct approximately 350 footbridges in the country. This rapid program growth presents an unprecedented opportunity for rigorous investigation of the effects of new footbridges on a number of key economic, health, agricultural, and education outcomes for rural communities.

B2P’s scale-up model is designed to combine funding from local and national governments in Rwanda with debt financing from international sources. Upon completion of the footbridges, and demonstration of the health and economic impacts, an outcome-based payment will be issued to B2P to repay investors and further expand their program.

AveryThe CEO of Bridges to Prosperity, Avery Bang, is a civil engineer dedicated to mobilizing capital ethically, toward helping to solve rural isolation as a barrier to economic prosperity. Avery is profiled in Chapter 7 of The Global Engineers.

Systems engineering and science

Engineers have begun to recognized the importance of considering the complex systems governing effective development when designing projects. In this regard, engineers have promoted “systems thinking”, systems engineering, and the inclusion of governance and institutions in addressing basic service delivery (Amadei, 2015).

Systems engineering has been particularly leveraged in the fields of water and sanitation (Walters and Javernick-Will, 2015; Davis, Javernick-Will and Cook, 2019). For example, USAID promotes a local systems framework for the development of water supplies, the design of which includes principles such as systems mapping, holistic design, monitoring, and accountability (USAID, 2014). The USAID Sustainable WASH Systems (SWS) activity, led by the University of Colorado Boulder, is designed to characterize the systems behind water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services across several programs in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. The activity recognizes past failures in providing reliable service delivery, and seeks to generate knowledge around the broader systems required to improve services. One element of the SWS model is the promotion and facilitation of learning alliances, which bring together actors at the district and local level to collaborate in identifying relevant service delivery relationships, material flows, and leverage points, and through collective action improve WASH services (USAID, 2018).

DanDan Hollander, an American civil engineer and former US State Department Foreign Service Officer, leads the SWS program. Dan’s experience working in low, middle and high income countries as an engineer is shared in Chapter 10.

Similarly, the WASH Agenda for Change, supported by a network of influential donors and implementers, considers financial planning as an underpinning activity in promoting improved WASH services. The model also promotes collective action and measurement of long-term service delivery (Agenda for Change, 2019).

A potential limitation of systems approaches is the continued focus on local actors and factors, while the broader implications of globalization are considered outside of the design envelope. Systems engineering would benefit from considering global trade imbalances, resource exploitation, and the unequal distribution of wealth, which can preclude local governments from considering tax-based resources as relevant factors when exploring the relative influence of different factors in the sustainability of basic services.

Education and training

There are several emerging educational programs aligned with the motivations of Global Engineering. The Engineering for Change (E4C curriculum, offered online, was designed and curated by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), with participation from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Engineers Without Borders-USA. The free online curriculum offers introductory training sessions for engineers seeking to apply their skills to global development challenges, including introductions to development history, practice, and local contexts.

Iana Aranda, a mechanical engineer and the president of Engineering for Change, is dedicated to developing the Global Engineering workforce of the future. “We face a deficit in the global engineering workforce that could escalate into a crisis if we do not act.”

According to a World Economic Forum report in 2015, among all engineering jobs, it is estimated that there is only one qualified engineer available for every 1.9 positions (WEF, 2015). “This shortage of engineers grows more acute daily, particularly in frontier markets. One strategy in addressing this is to encourage young people to enter technical fields, and to understand why engineering matters and how they can contribute. To reach young, potential engineers, traditional training must be supplemented with new approaches to engaging, informing and deploying this critical technical workforce. Digital communities and knowledge platforms provide an accessible pathway.”

As part of the solution, Iana launched the E4C Fellowship, a “workforce development program in social innovation that serves to build engineering capacity and prepare talent to solve local and global challenges.” E4C Fellows are young engineers recruited from around the world conducting project and product research to support the E4C Solutions Library, while building their own professional networks and Global Engineering capacity.

Other organizations worldwide also offer service learning, volunteer, and training opportunities for engineering students and professionals. Many of these organizations focus on small-scale, village-level partnerships, while others also offer professional consulting services for larger-scale efforts. These programs include Engineers Without Borders-USA (, many of the EWB organizations affiliated with EWB-International (, Engineers in Action (, and Engineers for a Sustainable World (

At the university level, the Centre for Global Engineering at the University of Toronto is a cross-disciplinary research institute that focuses on areas of global need, including food and nutrition, water and sanitation, health and shelter. The Centre involves the participation of all engineering disciplines in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, and works in both Canada and developing countries.

Similarly, the Mortenson Center at the University of Colorado Boulder has evolved a model of scale-appropriate technology design and implementation, with an increasing emphasis on the development and validation of more broadly applicable methods, technologies, and evidence generation. As reflected in the name change from “Engineering for Developing Communities” to “Global Engineering”, the Center seeks to positively impact vulnerable people and their environment by improving development tools and practice.

Areas of research at the Center include organizational theory and systems engineering, the development and validation of water, sanitation, energy, infrastructure and agricultural technologies and methods, design of service delivery models, impact measurement methods and technologies including instrumentation and remote sensing, and the development of standards for engineered systems applied in disaster relief. The Mortenson Center curriculum includes opportunities to take short courses in complementary topics such as Global Health, Development Economics, remote-sensing, statistical analysis, and impact evaluation. The required field practicum embeds students within global development agencies for at least three months, with some students continuing to engage with these agencies for many years.

This book

Discussions within the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder revolves around several key questions. What is our role? What challenges are we trying to solve, and how? How can we participate, without unwittingly and unwillingly engaging in neocolonialism? Are we reinforcing autocracies? Or, are we incrementally but meaningfully contributing to a more just and equitable world?

This are hard questions for anyone to answer – including college students who do not feel personally responsible for having created inequities, but do feel passionate about helping to address them. How can they help make a positive difference without unwittingly contributing to the structural injustices that existed before they were born?

Engineers and students have often sought a textbook solution to global development challenges. Occasionally, such books are offered, but unfortunately global development is uncertain, complex, and evolving. Often the dogma of “right” and “wrong” approaches is impervious to evidence and context, and instead reflects institutional incentives and motives.

This book seeks to examine the role and ultimately the impact of engineers in global development. It presents case studies of programs and technologies with which the author has been personally involved, and profiles engineers and other aligned professionals working within these and related programs.

Together, engineers can work alongside countries, communities and other professionals to identify and dismantle the underlying causes of persistent global poverty, and elevate all people, and their environment, as Global Engineers. 


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