John Phillips, an engineer at RedR Patron firm MWH, recently returned from a placement in Kenya as part of the Future Relief Worker Scheme (FRWS). RedR runs the FRWS with Engineers Without Borders UK. It allows young engineers from the UK to test their technical skills on a project in a developing country. For many engineers, a FRWS placement is the first step on their path to becoming a RedR Affiliate or Member, and playing an active role in the humanitarian community.
We spoke to John about his experiences.
What were you doing in Kibera, Kenya?
I was working as a Water and Sanitation Engineer with the local NGO Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI). KDI partners with residents of impoverished areas to build public spaces that improve the community’s physical, economic, and social life.
I designed solutions for community sanitation blocks and created a website providing information on legally connecting to municipal water and sewerage infrastructure. Plus, I managed the drilling of a borehole in a school just outside of Narok in rural Kenya.
What did you learn from the placement?
Every aspect of the project in Kenya was different from my work in the UK - the size of the site and limitations of the budget, social constraints and the level of involvement from the community, not to mention the health, safety and security risks. It really gave me the opportunity to think about what we were doing and what we hoped to achieve at every stage - none of it was a simple box ticking exercise.
What aspect/s of the placement did you find the most challenging?
Kibera is busy, crowded, dirty and dangerous, often a very difficult place to work in. The Kenyan Presidential Elections took place while I was there - a security concern which led to an increase in criminal activity. I had to be really flexible with all my work. I was lucky that FRWS took these risks very seriously.
Would you recommend the Future Relief Worker scheme to other UK engineers?
Definitely. The scheme put me the position to take the lead on a number of projects and develop skills which I might not have been able to back home. Having experience of living and working in another country and culture is a great asset, and is useful as in my work at MWH there are opportunities to work on projects abroad. One of my friends in the community once said “If you can work in Kibera you can work anywhere!”.From a personal perspective working in the largest urban slum in Africa was a unique experience.
Why do you think it’s important for UK engineers to get involved with development and/or disaster relief?
Working in international development and disaster relief gives us, as engineers, the opportunity to share knowledge and skills developed at university and at work, and contribute to projects in communities where people have not had the same opportunities to learn these skills.We can also gain a lot personally from working with these communities, and see things from a different perspective, that can impact how we work back in the UK.
Photos: ©John Phillips