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Engineers and aid

20 September 2013
Haiti transitional shelter

Transitional shelters: one-room dwellings only intended to last about three years.

According to a UN Task Force every development goal depends on engineering specialists, and on electrical and electronic engineers in particular, reports Ralph Adam.

International aid returned to the news recently when a British member of the European Parliament referred to recipient countries as ‘Bongo-Bongo Land’, forgetting that, post-World War II, Britain depended on aid, benefiting from programmes such as Lend-Lease, the Marshall Plan and Canada’s Mutual Aid. More recently, the terrible Japanese earthquake and tsunami demonstrated how a wealthy, developed country can find itself in need of external humanitarian assistance.

Britain has a strong commitment to aid, with one of the very few governments to have ‘ring-fenced’ its budget at 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income – the United Nations target for its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The goals include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, the achievement of universal primary education, reduction of child mortality from preventable diseases and environmental sustainability.

The world of international aid is complex and highly political, consisting of donor governments, regional groupings (e.g. EU), intergovernmental bodies (such as the UN and its agencies, the World Bank and the OECD), non-governmental organisations (including the many charities), bilateral and multilateral grant agencies plus an uncountable number of private bodies. In such a massive business it is inevitable that occasional mishaps occur – a payment goes astray, a consultant fails to meet contractual requirements, a project is blocked.

The OECD considers foreign aid to be at its highest-ever level. As a result, there is always a need for experts ‘on the ground’ to carry out the complex work required to develop training, create services and provide installations. According to a UN Task Force every development goal depends on engineering specialists - electrical and electronic engineers, in particular.

Modern energy resources, through off-grid, renewable and other distributed power systems can make life much easier for rural communities. Hence the need for experts to help with such tasks as the installation of pumping systems to improve irrigation or provide safe drinking water. Electricity brings many other benefits, for example, effective lighting in schools or refrigeration to protect medicines.

Satellite and mobile telephony are also very important: benefits range from improved, cheaper health care through remote patient-monitoring to enhancing productivity in the agricultural and fishing industries. Telecentres have proved a tremendous boon – supplying satellite, mobile and Internet services to a single village house or shop for everyone’s use.

Community radio has many potential benefits, too, from advising farmers of the latest agricultural techniques to saving lives through warnings of dangerous weather patterns such as cyclones. Radio, coupled with new approaches to disaster management, can result in a significant drop in fatalities, loss of livelihood and property.

Behind the scenes lie many ‘invisible’ tasks: the setting-up and maintenance of information networks, for instance, or collaborative projects like the ACE submarine communications cable linking South Africa with France and managed by a consortium of operators and administrations.

Students can join Ingénieurs Sans Frontières (Engineers Without Borders) with its excellent opportunities for young people to understand technology’s role in tackling poverty; there are also many ways for professionals to discover the satisfaction of helping the world’s poor. The IET is itself a patron of the disaster relief charity RedR. Chartered Engineers and Engineering Technicians play a pivotal role in helping communities recover from natural disasters. The rebuilding of water, telecommunications and power networks is vital to recovery and gives engineers across the world a chance to really make a difference.

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