When natural disaster strikes, infrastructure suffers: buildings, roads, power supplies, water, lighting.... In the aftermath, the helping hand of others is sometimes the only thing that can soften the blow. But in some cases, in the long term, it can do more harm than good.


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Foreign aid has often been likened to ‘giving a fish to a person who is hungry’. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is more about ‘teaching someone how to catch a fish so that he can fish in the future too’. The lines do, however, get blurred.


For instance, in the name of philanthropy, many engineering technologies are doled out to impoverished nations. Like the analogy of providing just the fish to the hungry, the gesture may appear commendable, but it is worthless if a nation is unable to apply the technologies meaningfully.


It can even be counterproductive: foreign aid can create a dangerous dependency, destroying local entrepreneurial endeavour and collapsing markets. The practice has faced criticism, most notably in a documentary named Poverty Inc.  


The solar streetlight business

In the Poverty Inc. documentary, a specific example of foreign aid is seen to directly disrupt a renewable energy company in Haiti, after the earthquake of 2010.


Credit: Inter Press Service News Agency (https://www.ipsnews.net/)

3.1 Haiti's solar entrepreneurs from POVERTY, INC. | The Movie on Vimeo.


Enersa, a company that trained lighting technicians to engineer solar panels for streetlights in Haiti, was impacted negatively by foreign aid. Enersa is completely owned and operated by Haitians. One of the co-founders of the company Jean-Ronel Noel, learned how to manufacture solar panels on the internet. He used MIT’s free online course materials to learn how.


“I was able to use the OpenCourseWare to learn the principles of integrated circuits. I found out that I could use an existing integrated circuit to make things more efficient, and I wanted an explanation about how it worked. I was able to learn this through the MIT OpenCourseWare,” he said, in an interview with OpenCourseWare.


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After the earthquake, NGOs donated solar technologies to the earthquake-effected country and Enersa’s sales fell; the company went from selling 50 solar panels a month to selling only 5. 


The Clinton Foundation, founded by Bill and Hillary Clinton, had allegedly invested in green energy in Haiti to boost its recovery. The foundation, with the help of NRG Energy and the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) donated the solar streetlights to Haitian communities. On their website, they said:


“The solar streetlights that the Clinton Foundation provided are particularly important for these communities…”


African experts perceive foreign aid to be a problematic force that precludes African artisans, technicians and engineers from gaining the benefits of entrepreneurial profit due to the barrage of free technology dumped on them.


Steve Mackay, the Dean of Engineering at the Engineering Institute of Technology, believes that the foreign investment of technologies into poorer nations needs to be approached cautiously and thoughtfully. In his video named The Barefoot Engineer, Mackay said:


“One of the critical things when you do get involved with projects in the developing world is to avoid highly sophisticated infrastructure or advanced manufacturing. The trick is to go for barefoot engineering. This involves the use of practical, robust technology appropriate to the needs of the community you’re in.”


Alongside this more circumspect approach to donating technology, is training and education not essential too? With this expertise there would be growing numbers of those with the skill and the means to ‘fish’ for themselves. Coordinating and delivering education may be considered too challenging logistically, but then with the new online teaching technologies abounding many opportunities are emerging.


Engineering prosperity in poorer nations

The University of Oxford have announced their very first MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) named ‘From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development in 2017.’ These kinds of freely available courses are seeing large numbers of African enrollments.  

They believe that to secure Africa’s prosperity, education is the key.


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The Peace Corps, a volunteer program run by the United States government, deploys engineers out into the field. Its aim is to work with people in impoverished nations with the aim of finding workable solutions to problems. A returning chemical engineering volunteer took to social media site, Reddit, to deliver his opinion on what he had experienced:


“No amount of money will solve problems. People who set good examples and enable other people to solve their own problems...solve problems. Foreign development is a game and it takes many moves to have an impact. Those that are there for the short game fail. “


Works Cited

"MIT OpenCourseWare." MIT OpenCourseWare.. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.

"Recent BSEE Graduate Looking to Volunteer and Help Others Abroad (EWB, Peace Corps, Etc.) • /r/engineering." Reddit. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

Scarlet Cronin / Gregory Milne October 13, 2016, Clinton Foundation July 5, 2016, and Donna E. Shalala July 29, 2015. "Powering Haiti with Clean Energy." Clinton Foundation. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.