And the winner is ... An interview with Brendan Baker

February 02, 2011
Kate Harper

Brendan Baker is one of three winners of IDRC’s "Expose Urban Solutions!" photo contest that was launched prior to the Third World Urban Forum. It challenged photographers to capture the creative ways people in the world’s cities are confronting the challenges of urban living. Baker’s interest in the developing world stems from his university years.

While completing an undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of British Columbia (UBC), he got involved with Engineers Without Borders, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting development through access to technology. Baker felt a need to highlight the importance of the social and environmental effects of engineering. When not documenting the events of the developing world with his camera, he works as an engineering consultant in Vancouver.


IDRC:

What brought you to Senegal?

Brendan Baker:

Right after graduating from UBC, I took a long-term placement with Engineers Without Borders, and they sent me to Senegal. Initially, I was sent to take part in a cashew-processing project. The premise was to develop technology to allow the Senegalese to process their cashews, sell them on the local market, and generate employment. I also worked on a potable water project and I helped develop pumps that allowed people to access cleaner drinking water. I also worked to find ways of drilling water that used locally developed techniques and materials.

IDRC:

What’s the story behind the woman in your photo?

BB:

Oulymata was working on the potable water project as a technician. The pumps we were using for the clean drinking water project are a water wheel. The part you turn is made of tires and metal pieces. Water is brought from the bottom of the well through a plastic tube. Within the tube is a rope that passes through pistons, which act like buckets to carry water to the surface. We wanted to make these pistons locally (to reduce maintenance costs). First, we had to figure out how to make a fairly complicated shape without it costing a ton of money. We developed the mould, and we sourced bulk plastic material from Dakar, which was about a day or two away from our town.

We then built an injection-moulding machine and asked the metalworkers, including Oulymata, to practice making the pistons from the bulk plastic. When we came back on Monday there were about 300 made. They were all as precise as needed, but none of them were white, the colour of the bulk plastic. They were all different colours. We were surprised, and asked how they did it. They said they decided to reuse broken plastic buckets to make the pistons for the pump. We were pretty impressed that they had taken a fairly complex process and made it work quickly and cheaply.

IDRC:

How have your experiences in Senegal changed your attitude towards the developing world?

BB:

I knew that many of our preconceived notions about the developing world were false or unfair before I left. What I didn’t realize was the full extent of the differences between what we see in our media and what’s actually happening on the ground. People work incredibly hard, there is a lot of ingenuity and people are very friendly and welcoming. When I came back (to Canada), I was really excited. Canadians don’t see what’s actually happening in developing countries. There’s a lot of promise and a ton of potential.

IDRC:

What do you think it would take to change Canadians’ attitudes toward the developing world?

BB:

I think they are being changed. I see promising developments in things like last year’s Make Poverty History campaign. Public support drove that campaign and convinced many of the world leaders at the G8 summit to forgive billions of dollars in debt. That’s absolutely critical if people overseas are to escape from poverty.

The more positive stories we show to Canadians, the more they will start to appreciate, care about, and empathize with the challenges people [in the developing world] are facing. One of the reasons the poverty trap persists is because people here don’t realize what’s happening over there. That’s why I was very encouraged to be a part of the photography competition, because it does exactly that; it shows unique examples of the positive things people are doing to make their lives better.

The views expressed in this interview represent those of Brendan Baker alone and not necessarily those of the International Development Research Centre.