Bringing the Wisconsin Idea to Yemen

Representatives from the University of Wisconsin–MadisonEngineers Without Borders International (EWB), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) held a webinar on June 23 with attendees from around the world to discuss their recent cooperation in Yemen to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Featured panelists included representatives from all three organizations involved in the organization, including UNDP Yemen Resident Representative Auke Lootsma, EWB Instructor Professor Dana Cook, UW–Madison Operations Research and Global Health researcher Rebecca Alcock, UNDP Crisis Bureau Recovery Solutions and Human Mobility Head Luca Renda, UNDP Yemen Project Manager Arvind Kumar, and mechatronics engineer Hashim Ana’am.

The situation in Yemen, the “mother of all crisis countries” as mentioned in the webinar, proved to be uniquely challenging. Beyond the pandemic and the collapse of supply chains and health infrastructure, Yemen is in the midst of a civil war and blockade. This meant a lack of automatic manufacturing, limited market availability of critical resources, and poor internet connection.

“[This was] a unique project, a reminder that the pandemic forced us to work in a different way – to innovate, transfer knowledge, and overcome barriers,” said Luca Renda, the head of Recovery Solutions and Human Mobility at the UNDP Crisis Bureau.

Thanks to the partnership between UW–Madison, EWB, and the UNDP, engineers and health officials on the ground in Yemen were able to set the foundation for microenterprises to distribute PPE gear, design and manufacture simple, yet reliable ventilators, and expand face mask production to more than 80,000 masks per day.

UW–Madison staff served as coordinators, developing action plans and convening working groups. These groups pooled expertise spanning 15 departments and seven schools, including those beyond engineering, such as communications and business. The university also helped develop tools and guidance to support the work on the ground and through EWB and UNDP, paving a path for similar cooperative work in the future.

Support from UW–Madison was on a volunteer basis.

This is not the first time UW–Madison worked with EWB in the context of infrastructure crises. The mission in Yemen benefitted greatly from prior experience of both UW and EWB in Guatemala, where both organizations worked on developing a handbook response that detailed plans from assessing the crisis, to prototyping solutions, to manufacturing and distribution.

The primary theme that emerged throughout the webinar was local cooperation. EWB and UW–Madison representatives stressed partnerships with Yemeni engineers and professionals on the ground to create solutions specifically tailored for Yemeni support communities and economic groups. The goal is to sustain such initiatives and keep them local, building experience and promoting economic growth.

Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the panelists look forward to using the skills and expertise gained from cooperation to expand to other in-demand areas, such as in water availability via desalination and renewable energy.

According to Rebecca Alcock, the UW–Madison COVID-19 coordinator for the UNDP, the partnership in Yemen was an extension of the Wisconsin Idea, expanding UW’s work beyond the walls of the classroom and to the globe.

“When everyone is affected, our neighbor’s health is our own, and we all won’t be on the other side of the pandemic until we’re all on the other side of the pandemic,” Alcock said.

The full webinar is available to watch at:

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