Danny Almagor – Engineers Without Borders


Following is an edited version of an in-depth interview first published in the magazine Dumbo feather, pass it on (issue 9), D*Hub’s newest content partner.

While studying engineering, Danny Almagor became frustrated with the focus of the degree, which was skewed towards finding an answer to an engineering dilemma without considering the repercussions for society and the environment. He couldn’t understand why he and fellow students weren’t being given problems to solve that would have a positive impact on the world – even if they were hypothetical. When Almagor graduated, rather than ticking off the ‘must-see’ tourist attractions on his OE, he wanted to experience the world by giving something back; by working with communities in developing nations. As no organisation existed to facilitate this, he started one himself – the Australian arm of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Their mission is to ‘work with disadvantaged communities to improve their quality of life through the education and implementation of sustainable engineering projects’.

Dumbo feather: So how big is your ‘baby’, Engineering Without Borders (EWB) now’
Danny Almagor: We’ve got about 2,000 members and there are three main areas we work in now. There’s ‘Programmes’, which looks at sending engineers around Australia and the world to do development work. They might go to an indigenous community somewhere in the Northern Territory, or East Timor, or India and do whatever it is in engineering – from energy systems like photovoltaic or wind, to water and sanitation, to ICT and computer systems. Then there’s ‘Advocacy & Campaigns’, which links us into bigger-picture, international development-type campaigns like Make Poverty History, Fairtrade and things like that. Fairtrade is what we’re trying to focus on this year in the hope that we can get each one of our members to be an advocate for Fairtrade and get involved in that debate and hopefully make a difference. The third area is ‘Education’, and the intention there is to make an impact locally on ‘us’, the engineers who are intending to volunteer rather than the recipients. There we want to get into engineering courses at Universities to change the paradigm of engineering completely. If engineers once asked, ‘What is the answer’ to a problem, our intention is to change that to ‘What is the impact” In the current paradigm the answer might be a dam, but the impact is the displacement of 1,000 people in a village. It doesn’t matter that a dam is the most efficient, elegant solution to the engineering problem, the impact is not the one that we want. Impact looks not just at the financial impact, but at the social impact, at the environmental impact. For me, the concept of impact is lacking in engineering.

Has your focus on changing the engineering paradigm through education been there from the beginning’
It has. One of the key reasons that drove me to do EWB was that in my final year of engineering, everyone in the course had to do a design project. It was a year-long, huge subject and in groups of ten we had to solve a design problem. We had to design an airplane with a short take-off and landing, a certain sized wingspan, and it had to travel 6,000 miles return and drop ten, big, 100 kilo missiles. I went to my lecturer and said, ‘You know, I’m not so into this, it’s not quite what I want to be designing.’ He replied, ‘Come on Danny, it’s a uni assignment, stop being so annoying, just do it, I’m not going to rewrite an assignment for you.’ But it really bugged me, and perhaps the reason I was telling him I didn’t want to do it was because I wanted to get out of the work, but it got me thinking. I started thinking about why he couldn’t reframe the question and instead of saying, ‘There’s a war in Iraq and an aircraft bomber”, ‘There’s a flood in Mozambique and the runway’s been damaged so there’s a short take-off and landing, and it’s got to go 6,000 miles because you’ve had to take off from Southern India.’ And instead of ten, 100 kilogram missiles, it could be ten, 100 kilogram bags of rice. Everything about the problem is the same ‘ like you still need a deployment system ‘ but the context is different and therefore the impact is different. Engineers would then start thinking, ‘What are the opportunities’ What can my engineering bring to the world” rather than, ‘What can it destroy” So the education side has always been something I wanted to change.

So when you were in your final year were you questioning whether or not you really wanted to do engineering at all’
I was. Not so much because of that particular design problem, but because in my third year I had this sort of epiphany on a Friday afternoon’ I was listening to a lecture on propulsion and I had this panic attack inside that said, ‘What the fuck are you doing” I started writing, expressing myself on a piece of paper which I’m guessing isn’t something engineers would do often. The paper had a lot of swear words and questions; ‘What’s going on”, and ‘Why” and ‘How” Then I just started writing whatever came to mind, all the words I was passionate about and believed in ‘ the environment, travelling, people, relationships, teaching, learning ‘ all these words came up. I was looking at the words on the page, then looked up at the board, then looked at the words on the page and they were quite different. It was a Friday afternoon, the sun was shining, and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing in here, inside, doing sums’ I should be with people outside.’ So that was the first time I wasn’t sure about doing engineering. I guess it started me thinking that if I was to do engineering, how could I make it fulfill the passions I’d written on the page as opposed to working where I saw a lot of my friends working which was for a lot of the large corporate firms ‘ engineering and non-engineering ‘ and getting gobbled up by the system. Straight after that I went to the office and deferred [my degree] for a year. I’d had such a ‘holy shit’ moment I knew I had to take some time off to absorb it so I took the year off and travelled.

So what did you do during that year off’
I travelled. I did a little bit of work, but not really related to engineering. One thing that really struck me, although this was a couple of years after my year off, was when I was travelling through India. I was on a train going from Bombay [Mumbai] up north through Gujarat into Rajasthan. About half way the train started shaking a lot but, because it was India, I assumed it was just really bad train tracks and fell back to sleep again. When I woke up the next day we were in Ahmedabad and when I got off the train I immediately heard that there’d been an earthquake. I was going to get a rickshaw to a hotel but people said there were no telephones, the internet was out and that the best thing to do would be to get on a bus and continue up to Rajasthan. So I did because I was meant to be meeting a friend and there was no way I’d have been able to email him or get in touch. At the time I also didn’t know how bad the earthquake was, but by the time I got out of the bus, 12 hours later in Rajasthan, news of how bad the quake was, was coming through. The death toll started at 1,000, then 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 until they were talking about tens of thousands who had died. I was there thinking, ‘I’ve thought about this before. Here I am, this engineer, I’m fit and I’m healthy and I’ve got my first aid certificate ‘ all this great stuff ‘ what can I do” The answer was nothing. As an individual there was nothing, but had there been some sort of framework with more experienced people directing me, there would have been something I could have helped with. So there were a lot of times in my life that drew me to forming this organisation, EWB. Then once I’d finished my engineering degree I didn’t really know what to do, so I took another year off, lived in the outdoors, and did a course in outdoor recreation ‘ whitewater rafting, rock climbing. It was the antithesis of classroom engineering, computer-type work. It was outdoors, the brain switches off and it’s all about muscle memory and using your hands and feet. I also took school camps and professional groups rock climbing and whitewater rafting.

What were the first steps you took’ Often they’re the hardest’
It was December 2002 and I wrote up a business plan. I grabbed together a small group of friends who I’d studied with. We called ourselves the ‘back-of-the-class guys’ because we were always at the back sleeping or playing games. In hindsight, maybe I should have grabbed the front-of-the-class guys to start an organisation like this! We went to a cafe and I pitched the idea to them and said, ‘We can’t be the only ones who want to do stuff with sustainability and do stuff about poverty and want to use our engineering for much bigger things. We need to find a way to bring everyone together and pool resources and then use their expertise. With the younger engineers it’d be their passion and fire, with the older ones it’d be their wisdom and direction. That marriage could change the world.’

This is an edited version of an in-depth interview with Danny Almagor first published in the quarterly publication, Dumbo feather, pass it on. The full interview in Issue Nine is available at www.dumbofeather.com

Dumbo feather, pass it on
Engineers Without Borders Australia
Photo of Danny Almagor courtesy of Angelo Kehagias