Engineering Capacity Building

in Developing Countries


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

President, Committee on Capacity Building

World Federation of Engineering Organizations



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.



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:

Capacity building is a dedication to the strengthening of economies, governments, institutions and individuals through education, training, mentoring, and the infusion of resources.  Capacity building aims at developing secure, stable, and sustainable structures, systems and organizations, with a particular emphasis on using motivation and inspiration for people to improve their lives.

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

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.



Given the strong relation between creation of a critical mass of educated and skilled engineering and science graduates, shouldn’t efforts be made to build these capacities in Sub-Saharan African 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 .

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 is developing programs to address a significant subset of those needs, in areas of its expertise. Activities will include: 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 is organizing an e-conference in conjunction with the American Society for Engineering Education/Rio Colloquium scheduled for Brazil in September of this year. The use of an e-colloquium will enable 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 the Rio conference.

Other Activities: The Committee on Capacity Building is also working on the following activities:

         Black Sea University Network

         Gender issues

         South-south interactions

         Engineers without borders

         FIDIC (International Federation of Consulting Engineers)

         UNESCO/WFEO Expert Conference


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 a private consultant, working through World Expertise LLC to offer services in engineering education in the international arena. Prior to that, he had a long career in education: 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 is President of the Capacity Building Committee of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations.