Russel C. Jones, Ph.D., P.E.

President, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology

Abu Dhabi , UAE




Daniel D. Clinton, Jr., P.E.

Chair, WFEO Committee on Capacity Building

Pecan Valley , Texas , USA




In the pursuit of a more secure, stable and sustainable world, developing countries seek to enhance their human, institutional and infrastructure capacity.  To do so they need a solid base of technologically prepared people to effectively improve their economies and quality of life. Such a base will facilitate the infusion of foreign capital through attraction of multinational companies to invest in the developing country, assist in making the most of foreign aid funds, and provide a basis for business development by local entrepreneurs. In a coordinated approach, UNESCO and WFEO are mounting major efforts at technical capacity building in developing countries.




Capacity building; sustainable economic development; engineering education





An old Chinese proverb says:


“Give a person a fish: you have fed the person for today.  Teach a person to fish: you have fed the person for a lifetime.”


In today’s global economy, one more level needs to be added for developing countries:


And: teach the person how to process and package fish for export and market it, and you have stimulated economic development.


Economic development for developing countries can be effectively stimulated by building the technical capacity of their workforce, through quality engineering education programs. A competent technical workforce base can then provide several paths to economic development: attraction of technically oriented multi-national companies, who can invest effectively in the developing country once there is a cadre of qualified local employees available; effective utilization of foreign aid funds, and providing a legacy of appropriate infrastructure projects and technically competent people to operate and maintain them; and small business startups by technically competent entrepreneurs.


Capacity building can be defined as follows:


“the building of human, institutional, and infrastructure capacity to help societies develop secure, stable, and sustainable economies, governments, and other institutions through mentoring, training, education, physical projects, the infusion of financial and other resources, and, most importantly, the motivation and inspiration of people to improve their lives.” 


A simpler statement is that capacity building is the process of assisting people to develop the technical skills to address their own needs for improving the living standards and prosperity of their own people, and building an environmentally sustainable society. 


Attempts to build capacity are most successful as a partnership - when they are driven by the host nation working together with the supplier of assistance.  Identification of key stakeholders of the host nation who have vision and drive, but also connections to key decision makers in central and local government are essential.  Those stakeholders can assist in defining and prioritizing the greatest needs, and means to achieve them.  The resources of the supplier can then be used most effectively.


Responding to the needs of the developing world requires a “paradigm shift” not only in governments, engineering associations, and charitable foundations, but also in the academic and business worlds.



In the global economy of the 21st Century, engineers play a key role in overall economic development for countries and regions. In the well developed countries, the role of the engineer is well understood and utilized. In much of the developing world, however, the available pool of engineering talent is typically below critical mass – and economic development and even important basic societal needs that rely on engineering – such as clean water supply and sanitation – lack the technical talent to address them.


Technical capacity building efforts aim at developing a sufficient pool of well educated and certified engineering graduates in developing countries to effect three desirable outcomes:


         Technical capability is needed for developing countries to engage effectively in the global economy; direct foreign investment, international trade, mobility of engineers, and the flow of work to countries with cost-effective talent will result.


         Indigenous science and technology capacity is needed to insure that international aid funds are utilized effectively and efficiently – for initial project implementation, for long-term operation and maintenance, and for the development of capacity to do future projects. And a sufficient pool of engineers can enable a developing country to address the UN’s Millennium Development Goals effectively, including poverty reduction, safe water and sanitation, etc.


In order to stimulate job formation in developing countries, a technical workforce pool is needed, made up of people who are specifically educated and prepared to engage in entrepreneurial startup efforts that meet local needs Capacity building should be driven by the needs of the beneficiary; there are a number of approaches that yield effective results.  These include helping the key institutions - private sector, the universities and professional societies -- to evolve.  For externally funded infrastructure projects, having a capacity building component explicitly included to train operators, maintenance staff, and involve local engineers in the design and construction phases is highly desirable.  The intent should be to leave the local engineering community capable of executing similar projects entirely on their own.  The goal is to create the local capability, including consulting engineering practices and design-build companies, which attract capable people to grow and develop the human, institutional and infrastructure capacity within the country.


The World Federation of Engineering Organizations, through its Committee on Capacity Building , is dedicated to assisting developing countries to engage effectively in the global marketplace via technical capacity building.





In a detailed study of the results of foreign aid to developing countries over the past several decades, William Easterly concludes, in his book “The Elusive Quest for Growth” (MIT Press, 2002):


        Previous efforts have tried to use foreign aid, investment in machines, fostering education at the primary and secondary levels, controlling population growth, and giving loans and debt relief conditional on reforms to stimulate the economic growth that would allow these countries to move toward self sufficiency

        all of these efforts over the past few decades have failed to lead to the desired economic growth

        these massive and expensive efforts have failed because they did not hit the fundamental human behavioral chord that “people respond to incentives”


Having concluded that past efforts at stimulating economic growth in developing countries have failed, Easterly outlines what he thinks would work. He argues that there are two areas that can likely lead to the desired economic growth in developing countries, and can lead them toward economic self sufficiency:


        utilization of advanced technologies, and

        education that leads to high skills in technological areas



While emphasis on health and basic relief needs must continue, there is also a critical need to break the cycles of poverty through development of strong and competitive economies that can relate to world markets. The building of indigenous pools of people with quality educations in science, technology, and engineering can help lead to economic growth and healthy economies.


One need only look at examples from India and South Korea to see the effect of concerted efforts to enhance the education of engineers and technology graduates on the economies of these two countries. At the 2004 meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers the South Korean delegation to the Capacity Building Forum presented the results of South Korea ’s investment over the past three decades in the number and quality of engineering graduates. In 1970 South Korea had about 6,000 engineering graduates. In 1980 these were increased to 14,000. By 1990, the figure had jumped to about 80,000. When plotted against South Korea ’s per capita GNP growth, the number of engineering graduates almost directly parallels the growth of the South Korean economy, offset by a few years. This data appears to show a direct cause and effect – investment in building a well qualified and sufficiently large pool of engineers leads to sustainable economic development.


In the case of India there has been a long-term effort to increase the numbers of engineering graduates and the quality of their education. Whereas in the past, many of these graduates sought employment outside the country, now many are returning and newer graduates are staying to work in India in the software and design industries, often to high-tech cities where well-paying careers and extensive numbers of colleagues await them. The growing number of technically proficient and well-educated specialists also has enabled India to become a prime location for the outsourcing technical support by the world’s leading technology firms.


In China, already a major economic power, the proportion of first science and engineering degrees to all bachelors-equivalent degrees was 59%, as compared to about 33% in the US in 2001 (Source: Science and Engineering Indicators 2004, National Science Foundation, National Science Board). The report opens with the statement:


 “Excellence in (science and engineering) higher education helps a country to be technologically innovative and economically competitive.”





First and foremost, a large enough pool of high quality, accredited engineering graduates is needed in developing countries so that the good results listed above can be realized. It must be recognized that there will be some leakage of these graduates to jobs in developed countries, but many will choose to stay where family ties and native country culture provide a comfortable environment.


But the basic need is the creation of good jobs in the home country. This is a chicken-and-egg issue. Increased demand for engineers will result only when there is a sufficient pool of well qualified graduates to attract direct foreign investment, multinational corporation operations, offshore outsourcing from developed countries, and entrepreneurial startups. Developing country planners and government officials must pursue effective economic development and job generation strategies in parallel with making the needed investments to enhance the quality and quantity of engineering graduates.


Engineering education in developing countries should include significant coverage of entrepreneurship – how to start, operate, and grow a small business. Note that US companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Yahoo all were started in garages by enterprising young people with a technical bent. Engineering graduates should be equipped to take a path of creating jobs rather than seeking one if they wish to do so.


As technology based economies grow in developing countries, one important source of top talent – in addition to new engineering graduates – is the return of previous emigrants from the diaspora. Several countries that are developing well have benefited from the return of former citizens who see new opportunities in their home countries, and bring back foreign experience and network contacts to the benefit of their home countries.  


In addition to increasing the number and quality of engineering graduates, and pursuing strategies to have good local jobs available, developing countries need mechanisms to apply research and development results from local universities and companies for economic gain. Such mechanisms as incubators and small business development financing are needed in the mix.





Developing countries that currently are very rich due to significant oil production present a special case in building capacity for long term economic development. Many such countries have focused their engineering education resources primarily on current needs for petroleum engineers and related fields.


Such countries need to develop strategic plans for the eventuality that their oil reserves will be depleted, when they will have to rely on other technical products and services to continue to flourish in the global competitive economy. Some of the current largess of funds should be invested in developing technical expertise in areas of long term potential, such as biotechnology, cybertechnology, nanotechnology, etc. Strategic investments should be made in the education of engineers and other technical graduates to develop such areas, and stake out future economic strength areas.


Such strategic planning will require the collaboration of governments, universities, and commercial interests in the oil rich countries.   


The leadership of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates has made such a strategic decision. Its Masdar initiative, a $15-billion commitment, is focused on future energy developments, including solar and wind, as a complement to its current favored position in petroleum. The initiative includes strategic investments and demonstration projects in alternative energy, a six square kilometer carbon-emission free demonstration city, and a new university to provide the human capital for future leadership in alternative energy and sustainability.





Given the strong relation between creation of a critical mass of educated and skilled engineering and science graduates and economic and social development, efforts should be made to build these capacities in developing countries. This is one of the conclusions reached by both UNESCO and the World Federation of Engineers (WFEO). The World Federation of Engineering Organizations was founded in 1968 under the auspices of the UNESCO in Paris and is a non-governmental international organization that brings together national engineering organizations from over 90 nations and represents some 8,000,000 engineers from around the world. WFEO is the worldwide leader of the engineering profession and co-operates with national and other international professional institutions in developing and applying engineering to the benefit of humanity.


In keeping with its mission, WFEO created its Standing Committee on Capacity Building at the WFEO General Assembly in Tunis in 2003. The Committee on Capacity Building held its first organizational meeting in Washington , DC in June 2004; this meeting was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation. The Committee currently includes 44 members from 29 countries. At this and subsequent meetings several priority projects were identified, including:


Engineering for the Americas : This project, being carried out in conjunction with the Organization of American States, is focused on developing plans for enhancing engineering education and practice throughout Latin American and the Caribbean . The focus is on upgrading engineering education and on its quality assurance for that education.


African Initiatives: Many of the societal, human and economic needs identified in the Millennium Development Goals and other similar descriptions of the situation in developing countries are present in sub-Saharan Africa . The WFEO Committee on Capacity Building has developed programs to address a significant subset of those needs, in areas of its expertise. Activities have included: engineering education workshops; development of accreditation systems; entrepreneurial training, particularly for women; stimulation of internship programs; electronic delivery of courses; formation of Engineers Without Borders cells; and faculty and student exchanges.


Electronic Initiatives: The Committee on Capacity Building has organized e-conferences in conjunction with major international engineering education conferences. The use of an e-colloquium enables engineering educators from developing countries who cannot typically afford to attend international conferences to participate by submitting papers and discussion in advance of the live meeting and then have their materials presented in summary form at an international conference.


Gender issues: a sub-committee of the CCB was instrumental in organizing the highly successful WFEO conference on Women in Engineering and Technology, held in Tunis in 2007. Among other outcomes, a recommendation that WFEO establish a standing committee on Women in Engineering has been implemented by WFEO.


South-south interactions: The CCB has collaborated in promoting South-south interactions, including technology transfer among developing countries. For example, CCB has collaborated with the South African Institution of Civil Engineers to promote meetings of the African Engineering Forum, involving a dozen countries in Southern Africa .


Engineers Without Borders: Working with Engineers Without Borders International, CCB organized a workshop in Cameroon in 2005 to stimulate interest in the formation and development of EWB cells in sub-Saharan Africa .




As in many developing nations, the infrastructure in Afghanistan has been poorly maintained for decades through ongoing conflict, neglect and the loss of professionals.  There has been little maintenance, so a continuing deterioration in roads, water systems, and electricity supplies has occurred over a number of years.  The infrastructure is no longer able to support the population to the standard of living they previously enjoyed.


Afghanistan is not unique. Many other countries have similarly suffered. The issue of how to develop capacity and physical infrastructure without going through all the developmental stages that developed nations have undertaken over the last 40-50 years is a major challenge, and opportunity.  There need to be effective ways to shortcut to state of the art technology and approaches, while ensuring that the skills to use and maintain it are firmly embedded in the host nation.  Without embedding the skills and capability there will be more failed aid projects. .


At a recent meeting sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineer (ASCE), Society of Afghan Engineers (SAE) and Kabul University , Julie M. Fraser, a senior financial analyst for the World Bank, said “Capacity building is something that we have struggled with in Afghanistan .  The country has had more than twenty-three years of civil conflict.  A lot of good people left the country, so you didn’t have educational systems there.  And now when we go back and try to reconstruct, especially in the first couple of years, there’s a lot of tension in trying to get something on the ground quickly and build up the current institutions and the human capacity necessary to do that.  So we’ve really been struggling with this quite a bit.  But we’re also trying to tackle these challenges in different ways.  We’re focusing on education – higher education as well as lower education.  We’re also working on a skills development program, and within each sector we’re working with various donors to try to integrate capacity building into programs.”


Over the last several years, ASCE has been working with the Society of Afghan Engineers (SAE), an organization of engineers in North America and Europe committed to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, to develop infrastructure projects than can promote economic growth in that nation.  The ASCE, SAE and Kabul University initiative is a practical means of advancing professional knowledge and improve the practice of civil engineering, and foster technical training.  The effort involves collaboration with Kabul University to provide a pilot round of training focused on engineering professionals working for Afghan engineering firms.  The goal of the project is to develop Afghan firms, and the capability of the University to deliver professional development, so Afghan engineering firms become effective partners in donor funded infrastructure projects.  In 2007, SAE, ASCE and Kabul University held three, ten-day workshops covering topics ranging from project management through to marketing engineering and consulting services. Expatriate engineers from SAE delivered the program in Farsi and Pashto to their colleagues in Afghanistan .  Over 60 professional engineers working for Afghan firms on World Bank, USAID and Asian Development Bank donor funded projects have participated.  There are calls for additional professional development delivered by Kabul University in collaboration with engineering professional societies in Afghanistan for engineering firms, key infrastructure ministries and skilled trades.  Over time, Kabul University will be in a position to design, develop and deliver the needed professional development, so Afghans are firmly in control of their destiny. 







Technical capacity building in developing countries as a lever for economic and social development is currently recognized as an important priority in the global engineering community. The WFEO Committee on Capacity Building is pursuing this priority on several fronts.




Russel C. Jones is founding President of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate education and research institution focused on alternative energy and sustainability, in Abu Dhabi , UAE. Prior to that, he had a long career in education in the United States : faculty member at MIT, department chair in civil engineering at Ohio State University , dean of engineering at University of Massachusetts , academic vice president at Boston University , and President at University of Delaware . Dr. Jones was founding Chair of the Capacity Building Committee of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations.


DANIEL D. CLINTON, JR., is Chair of the Capacity Building Committee of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations. He has had a distinguished career as a consulting engineer, primarily in his home state of Texas . He recently served as President of the National Society of Professional Engineers, the organization of licensed professional engineers in the United States of America . He is currently a member of the International Activities Committee of the American Association of Engineering Societies, the organization which hosts the WFEO Capacity Building Committee. He also serves as Vice-President for North America of the Pan American Association of Engineering Societies (UPADI)