Engineering With a ‘Higher Purpose’
The 30 or so people who gathered on September 22 in a conference room a few blocks from the White House were a lot like the participants in many conferences in the nation’s capital. They were a mix of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and for many, English was not their first language. They came from Burkina Faso, Benin, Liberia, Ghana, Georgia, Cabo Verde, and El Salvador, just to name a few countries, to learn how engineering projects can help reduce poverty and spur growth.
During a “project readiness” exercise, there was a feeling of positivity and encouragement. The different groups collaborated and discussed ideas regarding infrastructure projects in their home countries, like Malawi’s progress on a new high-voltage power line and the rehabilitation of El Salvador’s Northern Transnational Highway.
The conference, known as the Infrastructure College, was sponsored by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US foreign aid agency created by Congress in 2004. While the agency depends on the skills of many people to help meet its goal of reducing global poverty through growth, the expertise of professional engineers is essential.
MCC and its engineers work with developing countries to solve issues dealing with agriculture and irrigation; transportation, including roads, bridges, ports, water supply, and sanitation; access to healthcare, finance, and enterprise development; anticorruption initiatives; land rights and access; and access to education.
Before MCC will consider a country for assistance, the country must go through a competitive selection process, including an examination by MCC’s board of directors, to make sure it meets certain criteria. MCC looks for countries that are committed to good governance, economic freedom, and investment in their citizens. Countries are then required to identify their plans for sustaining economic growth and reducing poverty.
NSPE member Christopher Ackerman, P.E., MCC director of vertical structures, says that it’s important for the agency to have a lasting impact on a country, not just deliver a temporary solution to a problem.
Since its founding, MCC has signed 34 compacts with 28 countries, worth more than $11 billion. These compacts are expected to benefit about 175 million people. MCC has also funded 27 threshold programs designed to help countries become eligible for compacts, totaling about $583 million. Threshold programs with Honduras, Guatemala, and Sierra Leone are in implementation. Threshold programs with Timor-Leste and Togo are in development.
For Ackerman, MCC’s engineering work comes with a higher purpose—improving countries’ economies and helping them grow.
“Although we may be rehabilitating a road for instance, or renovating schools, that’s not the end purpose. The purpose is to improve the learning environment of students or increase access to markets for agricultural industries that were constrained,” he says. “That’s what’s refreshing from an engineer’s perspective: to have that higher purpose of why we are doing a particular project.”
MCC’s model emphasizes rigorous monitoring and evaluation of results. Rabia Chaudhry, P.E., who serves as the associate director of the Department of Policy and Evaluation, notes that before a project is even started, MCC will lay out key targets and important milestones that must be met to ensure a project’s longevity and sustainability.
“Many development organizations monitor and evaluate; it’s something they know they need to do to see if a project reached its intended outcomes and to what degree,” says Chaudry. “Every single compact in every single country has to be monitored and evaluated.”
To ensure project success, collaboration and communication skills are necessary both within the organization and externally with the countries receiving assistance. It’s common for project teams to include people from different cultures and disciplines, including economists, lawyers, engineers, sociologists, anthropologists, and even translators. While this may seem like a daunting challenge, Marc Tkach, P.E., director of water policy and infrastructure, says it has been a fantastic opportunity for collaboration.
“At engineering firms, everyone speaks the same language,” says Tkach. “There’s a lot of shorthand. People come here and realize we don’t understand each other’s shorthands. We’ve had to develop languages or be clearer in how we speak, or what we mean, or what our objectives are. Through that, I think we’ve all become much better communicators.”
When the professional engineers at MCC find that their collaboration, communication, project monitoring, and evaluation efforts have led to success, they are often left with a gratifying feeling. Tkach, who began working at MCC over 10 years ago, has helped with many compacts in developing countries. He recalls one project in Tanzania to expand water treatment facilities and provide homes with clean running water. For decades previously, people had no access to clean water in their homes and paid for the delivery of drinking water by truck.
Meeting the people whom the project helped was an eye-opening and rewarding experience for Tkach. “This is transformative to them…what they pay, how they get water, what it means to their health,” he says.
Chaudhry has similar feelings. She wanted to use her engineering talent to help keep people healthy and safe, and she has had the opportunity to do that at MCC. “I wanted to feel the direct impact of my work,” she says. “I wanted to find a job that had to do with my original passion. I ended up here. It’s been pretty great.”