The article compares engineering practice in the first world with the challenges faced by engineers in the third world, on the backstreets of Asian mega-cities. It argues that engineering can be seen as a lever that amplifies the effect of a given economic investment. Seen as the application of scientific and mathematical principles, there is a tacit assumption that a given engineering investment will yield much the same benefits, wherever it is applied. Observations of engineering practice in South Asia and Australia reveal that this assumption is questionable. The social heterogeneity of engineering practice and the political economy (entanglement of engineering networks with social and political power structures), in which it is situated, influence the performance of engineering investments, causing large differences in benefits. The article briefly reviews observations of engineering practice that allow some comparisons in three types of settings: water supply utilities, metal manufacturing, and telecommunications. The performance of first two sectors appears to be less in South Asia than Australia. However, the unexpected success of telecommunications engineering stands as a beacon of hope, raising questions on the differences in engineering practices between different settings. The article argues we need to understand engineering practices and the influences of social, economic and political factors that are seldom mentioned in education or management discourses. It concludes that engineering practice issues provide at least a part of the explanation for poverty that endures.