*the following letter was submitted to the Total System Failure team by an EWB alum, and we really appreciate that they took the time to offer this public support. We welcome letters, submissions, or opinion pieces from the alumni network of EWB (or related organizations), and would love for more people speak up about these issues. Please see our Contact page for information on how to contribute.
I had been a part of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) for about 3 years from 2012 to 2015. My past roles included being a general volunteer for my university’s chapter of EWB, an executive role at said chapter, and a Junior Fellow (JF). I am writing in support of the legal action for victims of EWB’s unsafe work environments and mistreatment of employees, volunteers, and partners.
I was a JF in Malawi with the Water and Sanitation venture. While my experience was generally positive and safe, this was mostly due to luck, and I would like to express concern for the lack of safety and support for employees, volunteers, and partners of EWB both overseas and within Canada. In the pre-departure training in Toronto, there were many instances where the JFs were told that working overseas was seen as the “wild west”. Those in positions of power at the Toronto office such as full-time employees and then-leader George Roter often gave the impression that it was going to be difficult and possibly unsafe, but that was what we had signed up for. While in Toronto I had the understanding that to complain or ask for a change in placement or home would be akin to “not being able to handle” the exciting life of working in another country.
There was little discussion about gender safety beyond not leaving the home after dark and I do not think EWB made a genuine effort to let us know how they would respond and support us should there be harassment or assault during our placements. Looking back on my experience and based on discussions with the returning JFs at the end of the placement, it was very obvious that the quality of support varied greatly from country to country and placement to placement and that there was no oversight to ensure a standard of safety across all placements.
Furthermore, over the years I became increasingly disillusioned with EWB as I believe there was a culture of racism and discrimination at the National Office that benefitted those who were friends with George Roter and others in power and wanted to maintain the status quo, while others who sought to make real change both in Canada and overseas were not given the same respect or roles. It is my opinion that National Office was more interested in gaining investments from large companies and showing off “innovation” without making true space for those they were claiming to “support”, and the overwhelmingly white and Canadian leadership at National Office reflects this.
This is also reflected in the Dorothy campaign which I found to continue to uphold the white saviour narrative by having Canadian volunteers speaking for people in African countries. During the pre-departure training, a lot of the cultural competency training relied on stereotypes and National Office staff making fake accents to represent potential partners in African countries. For these reasons, once my returning JF duties were complete in 2015, I ceased to become involved with EWB because I lost the belief that actual change was possible due to the way National Office was run.
As more information comes to light and based on my interactions with EWB National Office staff, I do not believe that EWB has taken the necessary steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their employees, volunteers, and partners nor have they provided the required support and accommodations for incidents that happened during placements. I urge EWB to take the efforts of those who are coming forward seriously and fulfil the action items as recommended to prevent similar incidents in the future and make the organization more equitable and anti-racist.