One Humanity; Shared Responsibility
by Leila Fuerst (MSc Humanitarian Engineering with Management)
Being responsible is defined as “…[having] the duty of taking care of [something],” regardless of who the something belongs to. Responsibility relates directly to sustainability and equity, which are key principles that need to be incorporated in everything we as humans do. Responsibility can be divided into social, environmental, and economic dimensions. Social incorporates people, society, culture, religion, politics, and more. The environment is the planet and its finite resources. The economic dimension encompasses growth and the ability to produce value. These dimensions are interdependent and require balancing, as few actions are siloed. To be responsible is to consider these three but also ensure that the results of actions are equitable. Sustainable Development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Sustainable development in itself is an oxymoron, as it suggests that on a finite planet we can continue to sustain development. Engelman says that “we live today in an age of sustainababble,” where terms such as sustainable, sustainability, and sustainable development have become vague and to an extent undefined. Organisations often use these terms interchangeably with green and is often a case of greenwashing. For individuals, organisations, and even governments to be able to be responsible, it is important that societies worldwide understand what it means to act sustainably and develop in a sustainable manner.
Without a common understanding, it is impossible to achieve. Therefore, in Globally Responsible Engineering, being responsible means acting sustainably and equitably, and taking care of the planet, its resources and its people, by ensuring that actions have the least possible negative impact.
Moving up the pyramid, being globally responsible does not just mean that everyone is responsible. Being globally responsible requires one to consider their actions’ impacts beyond local spheres and immediate causes and effects. It is to reflect on how results may differ elsewhere because what holds true for one may not be so for differing people, places, or economies. Beyond doing no harm, actions should be taken that bring benefit, particularly to those in need, not simply reinforcing existing systems. At the peak is Globally Responsible Engineering, applying the aforementioned understanding to Engineering. It means designing and engineering solutions that are sustainable and equitable and that have positive impacts worldwide. It means creating projects with people and their needs at the forefront. It recognises the planet’s finite resources and uses them responsibly.
The current situation can be understood through a metaphor: Projects have firefighters trying to fix outcomes by fighting fires, when instead projects need to be made fire-proof, removing the need to firefight. One example is waste during humanitarian aid. It has been recognised that waste management is important, and organisations cannot abandon waste when providing humanitarian aid. Tackling waste locally is firefighting. A responsible future solution would be redesigning packaging to reduce onsite waste. This is a globally responsible action that fire-proofs the issue, tackling it at its core.
‘GLOBALLY RESPONSIBLE’ ENGINEERING?
By Saajan Gill (MSc Humanitarian Engineering)
At a time when global inequality continues to widen, the notion of the ‘responsible’ engineer remains an often-debated subject. However, over the past decade, a consensus has been reached on at least one thing: the role of the engineer should not be limited solely to the technical domain, but encompass a proactive understanding of ethics that transcend science in order to guide decision making. Less clear are the boundaries of these ethical considerations. Is this a new dawn for the engineer, or simply vague sophistry with which to rejuvenate the image of the engineering firm, with the aim of generating interest from a young, social-savvy workforce?
The UN One humanity pledges to encourage global action through multilateral institutions, the use of international law, and the empowerment of communities and local systems. But how effective are multilateral institutions in bringing about the change needed? The United Nation’s Security Council is dominated by powerful, ex-colonial nations, and takes precedence over the General Assembly, whose majority comprises former colonies of the Global South. Attempts to reform unequal trade paradigms between the Global North and South, to which the Sustainable Development Goals make exhortations towards, within the UN have fallen on deaf ears since the 1970s, and as recently as 2018; all passed overwhelmingly in the General Assembly– the minority of developed nations opposed such reform. As of 2015, less than 2% of humanitarian funding went directly to local organisations in the Global South, whilst the rest reached large NGOs in Europe and the United States, calling into question the claims of local preference in the foundations of engineering ethics:
“Please don’t keep telling us that we need to build capacity; it’s insulting and patronising. It’s an old-fashioned, colonial viewpoint. These organisations are run by people with two PhDs, they are not stupid. Just assume that the capacity is there and fund us properly.”
Jayawickrama argues that humanitarian aid and development narratives assume the vulnerability of people in the Global South in the same manner as European colonists did in the past. The humanitarian industry has grown since 1989 from $0.5bn to $22bn, lucrative in its own right but also used as an extension of European and United States foreign policy for regime change. In other scenarios, lack of accountability and racism has destabilised countries such as Haiti and Nepal, whilst a valued 1% of humanitarian funds reached populations during the Ebola crisis in West Africa. In many cases, World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans used to finance development have forced austerity upon countries, leaving their state apparatus open to privatisation and disproportionately affecting women’s rights.
In 2013, the Royal Academy of Engineering published a survey which asked 230 civil engineers what they thought engineers and graduates would do when faced with an unethical decision made by their company, results of which can be seen in Figure 1. The report celebrates the fact that unethical decisions are less likely to be expected to be carried through, unquestioned, than challenged. However, less scrutiny is applied to the fact that the lowest response polled was the expectation of workers to report their company to the relevant professional body, or the fact that this expectation reduces for more senior positions, that is, the higher their stake in the company. In a firm that is primarily motivated by profit, there are incentives for remaining quiet on big issues, namely the advancement of one’s career, bringing into view the limits of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Corporations are non-democratic organisms, whilst NGOs are de-democratised by state laws, meaning that true consensus on social issues cannot be gaged.
We are working with this year’s cohort of Humanitarian Engineering Masters students and look forward to seeing what they produce on the topic of inequality in design in the humanitarian sphere.
The MSc Humanitarian Engineering brings together students and professionals from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to tackle actual societal challenges in a manner very similar to the global teams assembled by today’s leading workgroups. The emphasis will be upon investigating complex humanitarian issues from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives to develop balanced, intelligent and synergistic solutions.