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Partnering with Petroleum

Engineers Without Borders Reaffirms its Funding Ties to Fossil Fuel Industry at January AGM

by Kalin Stacey

Partnering with Petroleum

The funding and motivation for Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) was questioned earlier this month when members of EWB met for the organization’s annual Annual General Meeting (AGM) near Pearson Airport in Toronto.

Engineers Without Borders is a Canadian development NGO whose mission is to “create systemic change wherever it's needed to accelerate Africa's development and unlock the potential of its people.” Formed in 2000 at the University of Waterloo, the organization quickly grew to contain chapters at engineering campuses across the country, and boasts one of the largest student membership bases of any NGO in the country.

At the AGM in Toronto, EWB’s ties to the fossil fuel industry became a focus.  A heated discussion on climate justice and the organization’s deep ties to Canada’s fossil fuel industry broke out after members based at the University of Waterloo brought forward a motion to “explicitly exclude fossil fuel companies as a funding source for EWB Canada and its chapters.”

This discussion was situated in the context of a weekend-long conference -- funded by TransCanada and Enbridge, among others --  which featured panels and discussions focused on global development and the organization’s role in the poverty industry. In the end, the delegates present overwhelmingly voted against the motion, and opted instead to maintain EWB’s relationship to the industry as a whole and to specific pipeline companies, which many believe are desperately trying to greenwash their images in the midst of massive public battles over their current tar sands infrastructure plans.

The leadership of EWB has relied on the model of corporate social responsibility, and a further belief that being funded by fossil fuel companies -- in their words, establishing corporate partnerships -- provides EWB with the opportunity to influence the practices of those corporations. This approach has been controversial within the organization, as year after year of fossil fuel funding produces perplexed and critical commentary from a variety of volunteers on the organization’s discussion forums, which are publicly viewable. When reached for comment, a member of EWB’s executive forwarded the leadership’s written response to the motion, and pointed out that internal discussions around climate change policy were just beginning.

Filzah Nasir, President of the EWB University of Waterloo and one of the motion’s authors, disagrees with the outcome of the vote and the official position of the organization. “EWB has been talking about developing a climate change policy but there's no way we can develop any reasonable policy while our funding relies so heavily on fossil fuels,” she said when contacted for comment.

With a burgeoning fossil fuel divestment movement underway across the continent, the January AGM may be the movement’s first attempt at addressing donations received from industry’s PR machine, rather than removing funds invested into those companies. The fact that the discussion took place at all suggests that the divestment campaigners’ aim to revoke the industry’s ‘social license to operate’ may already be bearing fruit. However, the organization’s insistence on partnership between itself and companies like Shell and Enbridge has raised serious questions about its commitment both to meaningfully address climate change and to acknowledge the other types of harm caused by these companies. “By partnering with these organizations, we are contributing to the continuous environmental racism and land theft committed against indigenous peoples within Canada and abroad,” Nasir explained.

“Nearly as frustrating,” she continued, “We are delegitimizing the work of any environmental NGO, community organization, or grassroots activist fighting against climate change and these companies.”

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