On volunteering

Conor McGlacken writes on what volunteering means to him. Originally published by Student Volunteering Week.

In a perfect world, volunteering wouldn’t exist. The sorts of issues volunteering tackles, whether it be mental health, child poverty or environmental conservation, are ones everyone agrees are important. So why aren’t they dealt with as a matter of course? These are services a better economy than ours would reward and incentivise. What does volunteering mean to me? For me it’s about addressing the needs of the present while working towards that future.

Conor (3rd from right) with engineering students at The University of Nigeria, Nsukka

The present need I’m addressing is a deadly lack of engineering in parts of the world. 80% of illnesses in developing countries are water related, killing two million children a year and devastating economies. Up to 70% of medical equipment in sub-Saharan Africa is broken. Half the populations of India and China rely on biomass fuels and more people die each year from smoke inhalation in badly designed shelters than from malaria. That’s why I volunteer with Engineers Without Borders UK an organisation working towards a world where everyone has access to the technology they need for a life free from poverty.

I began working with EWB-UK when I started at Bristol University in 2011, running outreach workshops on engineering and development with local school children. I got lucky in second year when I was chosen to join a team representing EWB-UK at a UNESCO conference in Nigeria. In a whistlestop six days we trained 100 university of Nigeria students to run workshops and together we delivered them to over 1500 local school children. The trip was a success, and my relative inexperience was only exposed when a senior UNESCO delegate spotted I was born in 1993 while laughing at my passport photo on the plane home.

Today I’m president of the Bristol University branch of Engineers Without Borders and hold a student position on the national board of trustees. At Bristol we currently have six technical projects underway, as well as educational trips, workshops, design competitions, a talks series and the aforementioned outreach program. As an explicit plug, you can find out more in our winter newsletter here. Through volunteering with EWB I’ve learned to put my faith in systems as well as individuals, to value people who’ll challenge my decisions and when to invest time and money in effectiveness.

I see volunteering, particularly student volunteering, as a stepping stone: anyone who wants to be effective long term should have an exit strategy. University brings buckets of time and maintaining the same level of commitment post graduation unpaid is often an unsustainable task. As student volunteers we should aim to make ourselves so effective we can make our causes into careers. With that in mind EWB Bristol use a portion of our resources for training and capacity building of members. For myself I’ve sought out conferences, training and placements and secured funding to do so from the Royal Academy of Engineering. The amount of money sloshing around universities is astonishing and as volunteers we should unashamedly tap into that.

Conor (back row, 2nd from right) with EWB Bristol members on a trip to the Centre of Alternative Technology
Conor (back row, 2nd from right) with EWB Bristol members on a trip to the Centre of Alternative Technology

I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not very good at water engineering, or shelter engineering, or energy engineering. I might just however be good at designing medical devices. In that spirit I’ll be spending summer in Tanzania with Engineering World Health, studying the challenges of donated medical equipment. The four week hospital placement at the end might allow me to have a short term impact, but I know it’s baby steps: the long term solution will require development of local technicians and local capacity for informed equipment procurement. I’ll keep volunteering around the edges as long as I need to, but hopefully some day we’ll tackle those big issues.

And hopefully we’ll be paid to do it.