Trevor Bayliss, inventor of the clockwork radio, held a capacity audience spellbound last week with one of the best lectures ever heard at Great George Street. Sometimes crude, very egocentric, sometimes deadly serious, he sparkled and made engineering exciting.
Organised by the Appropriate Development Panel and the British Council, his lecture showed what one person and a streak of inspiration can achieve in a short time (see ICE News page 20). Wind up the handle and the radio runs for 20 minutes. Cut out the need to buy batteries and hundreds of millions of the world's poorer people will listen, and a factory in South Africa is churning out radios as fast as it can go.
The Eureka moment, Bayliss recounts, came during a TV programme on the spread of Aids in Africa. He spotted the vital need to communicate with remote villagers, recognised radio's pre-eminence, and rushed into his workshop to wire an electric motor into a radio circuit board. Then, rotating the shaft with a hand drill, music emerged.
Current estimates are that HIV infects up to 40% of the population of Africa. Bayliss fears that 200M will be infected with the AIDS virus over the next decade. Even if a cure is found, it is likely the remote and poor will only hear about it.
This one creative man has made a significant difference.
The 'Telford Challenge' aims to alleviate poverty in the world's poorest communities - a worthy objective. But its launch in May by International Development Secretary Clare Short and ICE President Sir Alan Cockshaw ran into a barrage of criticism from ADP members - the very people with most experience of the developing world.
To put the challenge in perspective, the Department for International Development has promised up to £600,000 over two years to match funds raised by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the big four engineering institutions. If engineers can stump up £300,000 a year - far from certain - the funds won't obviously go far to alleviate world poverty!
Yet the publicity brochure proclaims that the Telford Challenge wants 'to reduce by 50% the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015'.
Far more realistic and within reasonable grasp is that the Challenge will fund a better method-
ology - an im- proved system of identifying the vital drivers which will eradicate poverty.
It has taken several dec- ades for the world to rec- ognise that funding mega dams and ports achieves little at poor people level. Perhaps aid money would be better spent improving teaching rather than drilling wells.
ADP chairman Peter Guthrie thinks it is a mistake to believe that engineers always hold the key to successful development. 'Engineers have made some of their greatest mistakes when they have been convinced that they knew best. As their contribution, engineers must maximise the benefit of what they do. Engineers are at their most effective when they understand that they are key members of a professional team and when they listen most closely to the people they are seeking to help.'
That transformation in attitude, if achieved by the Telford Challenge, could make a significant difference.
On a different note, the best news last week was the release from prison of General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler of Nigeria. He is now under house arrest at his farm near Minna, Niger State. This is a welcome start by General Abdulsalam Abubakar, who took over two weeks ago after the death of General Sani Abacha.
Obasanjo has been incarcerated for three years without charge. During this period Transparency International has retained him as chairman of its world advisory council, simply in recognition of his personal integrity and his determination to fight corruption.
Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd flew to Abuja last week urging the release of Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the annulled 1993 election and still jailed. Western hopes are that the new Nigerian dictator will restore democracy in October.
Eradication or even reduction of bribery and corruption would do more for the people of Nigeria than a return to democracy.
Selling 2bn plus barrels of oil a day, the country is rich in African terms. Yet petrol is imported because its refineries are out of action. The republic has plenty of trained engineers and technicians, but repair and maintenance efforts are frustrated by crooked business practises.
To beat endemic corruption, Nigeria needs international business and banks to refuse to pay further bribes. It also needs Obasanjo. He is another who could make a difference.