Lending a Helping Hand

IEEE President Pedro Ray talks about the need to get involved with humanitarian activities

6 December 2010
ray When disasters occur that affect the academic and technological infrastructure of a region, we will continue to determine the best role we can play Photo: Bill Cramer/Wonderful Machine


The close of 2010 marks the end of the first full decade of the 21st century. It has been 10 years of political and economic change and upheaval, as well as some life- and landscape-altering events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods.

IEEE has also changed in the past 10 years. One of the most important changes took place about four years ago when the IEEE Board of Directors clearly defined the IEEE core purpose as fostering "technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity." In fulfilling this purpose, the Board concluded that "the IEEE community and its technologies will positively impact global prosperity and quality of life."

A recent example is a forum on the electrification of sub-Saharan Africa held in Johannesburg in August and hosted by IEEE and its South Africa Section. According to the International Energy Association, less than 30 percent of the population in the region has access to adequate electric power. Lack of electricity is a major impediment to meeting the humanitarian needs of nearly half the continent and hampers the region's economic development. The forum explored how IEEE can use its resources to help, including working with groups already focused on the region's huge technological challenges.

The work in southern Africa is just one of many hundreds of humanitarian-focused activities involving IEEE and its members. Many of these activities are partnerships between IEEE and other organizations that help tap needed expertise as well as multiply the impact of our efforts.

Our most recent example of partnering is Engineering for Change, a collaborative effort with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The goal is to bring engineering and technology professionals, along with other problem solvers, together with nongovernmental organizations, industry, and communities to tackle basic quality-of-life issues, including access to clean water, electricity, and sanitation. The Engineering for Change project received support from the IEEE Board of Directors in June, and a program is scheduled to be launched in early 2011.

In another example, chapters of the IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade group, Engineers Without Borders-USA, two universities, and others have cosponsored humanitarian workshops for the past three years. The objective is to make engineering students and young professionals aware of how they can apply their skills and knowledge to assist humanitarian workers. Workshop attendees were also encouraged to become directly involved in humanitarian projects.

But many of the humanitarian challenges that IEEE has identified need more than just partners' and members' skills and intellect. They need money. That's what the IEEE Foundation provides, through its Humanitarian Technology Fund. The fund awards grants to projects that apply technology in meeting basic human needs such as clean water, power, and communications.

Some humanitarian challenges require extraordinary responses. The earthquake in Haiti in January and the floods in Pakistan in August are prime examples. In such instances, IEEE will provide money to help reestablish technical education and training once the region has been stabilized.

That's the impetus behind the Engineering Educational and Professional Development Rebuilding Fund that IEEE set up for each of those two countries. The decision to establish the funds was influenced by the impact and scope of the disasters, the availability of immediate help for those affected from local and international organizations, and advice that IEEE's leadership received from members on the ground.

Those are our first two forays into areas where IEEE has provided matching funds. The money came from sources other than member dues or assessments. When disasters occur that affect the academic and technological infrastructure of a region, we will continue to determine the best role we can play.

There's no doubt that IEEE will get more opportunities to achieve its mission of benefiting humanity. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll consider offering your time, talent, and money to the humanitarian projects supported by IEEE or support the work of other organizations doing humanitarian work.

Also, please post the humanitarian projects in which you're involved on the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Network so others can learn from your work and successes.

If you know of a humanitarian activity IEEE should be involved in, please let me know by sending a message to president@ieee.org.

Pedro Ray
IEEE President and CEO


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