What does short term volunteering achieve?

(Posted by Laurence)

I think Engineering Ministries International (EMI) is a great organisation, or I wouldn’t have joined as a long-term staff member, and the vision – designing a world of hope for the physically and spiritually poor – is unarguably a good one. Sceptics can, and do, criticise western-led development NGOs, especially when their work involves short term volunteers ‘parachuting’ into developing countries for just a week or two. Short term volunteering has its pros and cons, but for EMI it allows mobilisation of experienced design professionals for an intensive design project that kick-starts the design process. These volunteers have the necessary experience to have an impact during just a week in the field. So what does short-term volunteering with EMI achieve?

My first involvement with EMI was as a volunteer on a design trip to Uganda in September 2015.  The task was to produce a masterplan and conceptual design for an orphan transition home on an undeveloped 2 acre plot of land. The team did some great work, particularly the architects, and on return to the UK I worked with the EMI UK office to produce a detailed report containing survey information, conceptual design drawings, guidance on water/waster systems, and much more.  The pictures below give just a flavour of this work.

EMI wasn’t able to remain involved for the detailed design and construction phases of this project, but this weekend Jane and I were driving up-country and I decided to stop by and see if construction had started. It hadn’t just started, it was steaming ahead! Below are a few photos of what’s been built since the EMI UK team did their design work.

Reading this, and not being familiar with the designs and the site, you won’t be able to tell the extent to which the layout and design of the constructed buildings vary from the EMI designs. There are some significant differences, for example the communal main building and the dormitories (bottom photo) have been split into separate buildings whereas the EMI architects had them as one larger building; the location of the buildings on the plot is substantially different too. But does this matter?

A conceptual design is exactly that – a concept.  It doesn’t prescribe the only way the goal can be achieved. The buildings materialising are in many ways very similar in style, size, and purpose to those in the EMI report. The partner organisation needed help visualising their orphan transition centre: they had a plot of land and the money to build, but they needed architects and engineers to make the link between their vision and the reality of building design and construction.

I would say that EMI has done exactly that.

If you are interested in reading more about the impact of EMI’s work, the India office has published a review of its past projects in our magazine, Inside EMI, which you can view here. The article, ‘Measuring our impact’, is on page 40.


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