Engineering student Fraser Mah always felt more should be done to improve equity in the world.
The son of two Central Alberta doctors, Dr. Peter Mah and Dr. Donna Smith, Mah grew up in Red Deer. A graduate of Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School, he enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Alberta in 2006.
Mah says, in an email from Malawi, that he would often hear about the disparity between the rich and the poor and it became increasingly difficult for him to live a comfortable Canadian lifestyle without wanting to strive for greater equity in the world.
So he became involved with the not-for-profit group Engineers Without Borders.
Mah is a couple weeks away from finishing his work on a water and sanitation program in northern Malawi, a landlocked country in southeast Africa. He has been in Africa since early May and returns to Canada in late August.
“I do think that everyone my age and otherwise does have a responsibility to find their place in the world and discover how they can make the most positive change with the skills and lifestyle they’re pursuing,” said Mah.
This could be as simple as committing to buying only Fair Trade coffee or riding a bicycle to work.
“There’s a ton of opportunities to make positive change in the world, both at home and abroad,” he said. “All it takes is the commitment to seek these opportunities out.”
Mah said Engineers Without Borders is an incredible organization that believes in the power of every person to create real change in the world around them.
This summer, Mah worked with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian on the Water Development Alliance project in northern Malawi. One component of the project supported local entrepreneurs to install shallow wells, retain local waterpoint committees and repair boreholes.
Mah’s work involved visiting borehole (narrow holes drilled for water) sites slated for repair and conducting interviews with the local waterpoint committees. Mah would look at the system and give recommendations on ways to assist the local water point committees to have their boreholes repaired without outside groups doing the repairs.
Mah said often when an non-governmental organization (NGO) comes to a community and repairs something for free, it creates an expectation that free services are readily available to the community. He said this can undermine the responsibility of the water point committee to raise funds and seek repairs in the event of future breakdowns. Mah said the short-term efforts of these NGOs can often lead to long-term failures of community-based management systems.
“I feel that on-the-ground development work is an interesting challenge but definitely not for everyone,” said Mah.
“There is an increasing allure for young people to give back to the world and if this means working overseas, then that’s great. But I think that anyone who is interested in working in Africa or anywhere else needs to be sure that they take the job just as seriously as they would any other job, if not more so.”
In the fall, Mah will return to the University of Alberta for the final semester of his undergraduate engineering program. Mah will be active in the unversity’s Engineers Without Borders chapter, where he will share his experiences in Malwai.