GEORGE ROTER

Canada,

George Roter has turned young engineers and the general public into the driving force behind a citizen movement that is educating the Canadian population and transforming their country’s approach to global development.

This profile below was prepared when George Roter was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.

INTRODUCTION

George Roter has turned young engineers and the general public into the driving force behind a citizen movement that is educating the Canadian population and transforming their country’s approach to global development.




THE NEW IDEA

George is preparing Canadian citizens to engage with the broader world and become agents of change in international development assistance. By encouraging them to be “aware, care, prepare, dare, and share,” George plans to make all Canadians feel responsible for their government’s foreign assistance to developing countries, especially in Africa. With his organization, Engineers without Borders (EWB) Canada, George has cultivated leaders across the country to be champions in their local communities, giving people diverse options to engage in the movement to make Canada a role model in global development. This open-ended approach allows for ideas to blossom organically, while also being strongly integrated with EWB Canada’s national strategy.

Engineers are at the crux of George’s idea, for he sees their technical expertise as having powerful potential to engage others in development. George first changes engineering curricula at universities to incorporate global development issues, which he has already achieved in half of the engineering schools around the country. He then instructs engineering students and professionals in tactics to rally other Canadian citizens into taking part in activities that can generate varying degrees of local and global impact, such as through purchasing habits, voting, civic engagement, and larger community mobilization. EWB Canada leaders undergo a rigorous selection and training process in alignment with the organization’s values, encompassing the tools to support their ideas and the entrepreneurial motivation to innovate in ways that are relevant to their local communities. With this approach, he has accomplished nationwide impact through a 50,000-member movement led by a network of thirty-four distinct chapters.

Harnessing this large-scale change in attitudes among the Canadian citizenry, George is working to influence Canada’s foreign aid on a public policy level. Employing methods from door-to-door campaigns to meeting with government officials, Members of Parliament and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), George has fostered a national dialogue with public and citizen sector partners about aid effectiveness. In doing so, George has raised a new consciousness and sense of responsibility among society by encouraging the education and participation of the Canadian public. He is transforming Canada’s social fabric by emboldening Canadians to take action and advocate for more meaningful and accountable foreign aid.




THE PROBLEM

The majority of Canadians are unaware of or indifferent to their country’s role in addressing extreme poverty in developing countries, especially in Africa. According to the World Bank, extreme poverty—living on less than $1.25 per person per day—is on the decline globally; however, more than half of the worlds extremely poor live in sub-Saharan Africa. Mainstream Canadian society is largely ignorant to the issues, the role of and decisions made by government, as well as how they can make choices that contribute to human development. Reducing extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries requires large-scale change in mindsets, behaviors and policies, especially by policymakers, consumers, and mainstream society in the Global North.

The rhetoric and approach to Africa in Canada has not changed significantly over the years—Africa is still perceived as poor and helpless, and the primary mode of engagement is through charity. There is not enough trade, and markets are distorted toward protecting Western industry. In addition, government aid policies have not evolved quickly enough, particularly in Canada. Any shift in foreign aid policy in Canada and elsewhere to one that is transparent, culturally sensitive, and more meaningful will require a transformation of perceptions toward aid and Canada’s role in supporting developing countries. Yet presently, the Canadian citizenry remain by and large disconnected from their country’s aid policies. Canadian citizens have typically lacked access to information about how their own philanthropy, purchases, advocacy, or tax dollars contribute or not to positive development in the poorest countries. To make social and economic development in Africa and other developing countries relevant and valuable, Canadian citizens need to be knowledgeable and directly involved in the issues so that they can actively contribute both at home and abroad.

Professional and technical education, especially in disciplines such as engineering, offers an opportunity to involve citizens in their country’s foreign assistance. Engineers traditionally receive process-oriented training and are equipped with problem-solving skills applicable across diverse fields of work. However, Canadian engineers have been ill-prepared to transfer those skills effectively to poorer countries or to appeal to the larger Canadian population for their work.




THE STRATEGY

With EWB Canada, George equips engineering students with the skills to connect with and mobilize whole communities of typical Canadians to demand accountability and responsibility to truly improve the lives of people in the developing world. In the first phase of his project, from 2000 to 2004, EWB Canada dispatched volunteers to developing countries to enhance the technical quality of local development. Later George and his co-founder, Parker Mitchell, recognized that beyond just offering technical innovations, the societies needed to accept, absorb, and identify with them, or they would reject them. Out of this realization, George began to design the fundamental strategy that EWB Canada still employs to transform the Canadian social fabric and build a strong, aware, and caring citizen movement dedicated to strengthening its actions toward developing countries.

As an engineer, George first appealed to other professionals and students in his network and field to gather a coalition of other like-minded individuals and make engineering schools partners in the EWB Canada movement. He understood that engineers, through their training, have technical skills that could be useful on a global scale. George knew that no matter their discipline or trajectory, such as in government or corporate careers, they could use their expertise and passion as global engineers to speak up and influence their companies or agencies. To build the body of students involved, George forged partnerships with university administrators and professors to introduce international development and global engineering concepts—including history and critical development theory—into their engineering curriculum. As a result of his efforts, now global engineering curriculum is being taught in half of Canadian engineering schools and is a specialization option in twenty schools. Five engineering schools have listed global engineering as a priority in their strategic plans. Students taking courses at these schools will have taken global engineering as part of their core curriculum.

The engineering students become leaders on their campuses through dedicated EWB Canada chapters. EWB Canada’s leaders pass through a two-year selection and training process before they can start a new chapter. All leaders must fit the following EWB Canada values: Strive for humility, invest in people, courageously commit, ask tough questions, dream big and work hard, and address root causes for impact. George fosters innovation by encouraging and empowering members to develop new ideas, projects and knowledge, which are shared with other chapters in an online knowledge-sharing platform. This community creates a space for dialogue about the application of technological solutions abroad, new strategies for engaging Canadians in development issues, influencing public policy and transparent discussions about EWB Canada’s failures and how to improve their work. The strongest ideas receive resources and are spread throughout the network of chapters. EWB Canada also offers opportunities for young leaders to contribute to long-term engineering projects abroad. Through such strategies, EWB Canada has impacted more than one million people.

Some chapters are mobilizing students to change their universities’ purchasing habits to ensure that 50 percent of products offered at campus cafes are fair trade organic. For example, an EWB Canada chapter in British Columbia rebranded itself as “Fair Trade Vancouver” and brought in new members and partners to successfully spread awareness and make Vancouver a Fair Trade City. Similarly, in a move to create a new designation in Canada, TransFair (a Fair Trade certification organization) and EWB Canada worked together to establish criteria for “Fair Trade Campuses” in Canada which require that half of hot drinks available are Fair Trade certified and a certain number of Fair Trade products and educational materials are made available by every campus controlled vendor. This was largely realized through the work of one EWB Canada chapter at the University of British Columbia, which became the first to receive the certification and then challenged other EWB Canada chapters to replicate this on their campuses. EWB Canada created a Fair Trade University guide, including information on how to evaluate awareness of Fair Trade on campus, example surveys, and how to create a Fair Trade steering committee (with the President’s office) in order to create a Fair Trade policy at the school.

The integration of a global engineering curriculum has not only educated and mobilized students in Canadian engineering schools and leveraged this to engage the general public, but has led to the delivery of development workshops to high school students and EWB Canada members engaging with over one million Canadians about African development since 2000. By the end of 2010, there were 50,000 members across twenty-six campuses and professional chapters in seven major cities. Six hundred of these members were leaders who participated in leadership development and national retreats organized by the EWB Canada national office.

As EWB Canada grows, George has devoted some of his efforts and manpower to advocacy for Canadian development assistance, thus taking advantage of the success he has had with the chapters to influence public policy. He has developed a reporting mechanism to gauge the effectiveness of aid organizations by crafting a website for these COs to share failures and ultimately learn from mistakes. By incentivizing them to share these failed experiences with aid funding, EWB Canada is contributing to an important learning process that will over time lead to more effective aid.  He is also spreading awareness to the Canadian public through three websites (www.ewb.ca, www.admittingfailure.com and www.farn.ca), reading materials, and EWB Canada chapter outreach and advocacy campaigns. George and EWB Canada have repeatedly engaged the Prime Minister of Canada, Members of Parliament, and UN member countries in discussing aid effectiveness. Since 2005, he has been a key advocate among top government decision makers. George’s activities to initiate dialogue and encourage civic participation helped persuade CIDA to change its aid policy, resulting in a 15 to 30 percent increase in aid effectiveness and also removing the limitations of “tying aid” to certain stipulations. In March 2011, George launched the Foreign Assistance Reform Network (FARN), an ambitious initiative to bring together top stakeholders and organizations from the development, business, and foreign policy sectors. To date, FARN has engaged 10,000 Canadians in its platform at local events and social media outreach, generated more than forty media articles, and organized twelve all-candidate debates focused on global development across the country.   




THE PERSON

Growing up in a household that encouraged debate, civic participation and volunteerism, George became adept at inquiry and analysis at a young age. He had positive role models in his father, who was engaged in the nuclear disarmament movement, and his mother, who provided assistance to community members, such as youth escaping abuse or individuals living with AIDS, by welcoming them into the family home.

After high school, George pursued his goal of becoming an engineer, beginning his studies at the University of Waterloo. He was not satisfied studying only core engineering curriculum, which he felt lacked the same stimulus for critical thinking and problem-solving as he found in other courses in the arts. As head of the engineering student club, he worked with the student and faculty members to introduce a joint degree option in the program drawing from other departments. George built upon this momentum and went on to launch the first interactive online newspaper at a Canadian university. The publication allowed student journalists to report news in a timely manner and also receive instant feedback from the students. George also started a club for biomedical engineering and led a group that built software to improve the career services center. These experiences taught him that a group of students had the capability to enact serious change.

At the end of his engineering program, George and his close friend, Parker Mitchell, began to envision a project that would apply engineers’ skills toward positive change in developing countries. In 1999, after completing his master’s research in Israel, George returned to Canada and in 2000, together with Parker founded EWB Canada. For the past ten years, George and Parker developed EWB Canada with a focus on critically evaluating and creatively evolving organizational processes based on past successes and failures. While Parker focused mainly on EWB Canada’s activities in Africa and has since stepped down, George’s leadership has helped steer the organization into a new chapter, leveraging the power of an active network of leaders and citizens to transform Canada’s approach to development and civic engagement around the world.