Canadian Consulting Engineer

Careful where you stand

October 1, 2001
By Bronwen Ledger

There's no doubt that Canadian engineers are genuinely motivated to share our technology and our standard of living with the poorer people of the world. Certainly this magazine has spent much ink over...

There’s no doubt that Canadian engineers are genuinely motivated to share our technology and our standard of living with the poorer people of the world. Certainly this magazine has spent much ink over the years on Canadian firms’ achievements in developing countries. This 2001 Awards issue is no exception, with the international category award going to the GasAtacama pipeline in Argentina.

The more one delves into the issue of western aid for building infrastructure in developing countries, however, the more complex and huge loom the ethical issues. First, despite billions expended in aid and debt relief, we obviously have miles to go. The United Nations’ State of the World Population 2001 report released in September, for example, said that unclean water and poor sanitation kill more than 12 million people a year.

Consulting engineers are not responsible for the economic disparities that deny Third World residents access to western infrastructure and services. They do, however, find themselves implicated in controversies that arise over the way projects proceed. As the article “Tread Softly” (page 66) shows, large engineering projects in the past have sometimes been a mixed blessing and have even caused environmental harm. These days, vocal activist groups are quick to pounce when they believe big business or government interests are trampling on local community rights. Increasingly, consulting engineers have to be sure of their moral ground.

Engineers interviewed for the article suggested that decisions such as whether to proceed with a hydropower dam, highway or other construction rest with the client and are beyond the responsibility of engineers. But we can’t have it both ways. It’s illogical to argue on the one hand that it is necessary to hire a professional engineer for a study or project because he or she will protect the welfare of the general public, and then on the other hand say that the engineer is not responsible for the outcome because ultimately his hands are tied.

Increasingly Canadian consultants say their involvement in the Third World is not to build-and-leave, but rather to educate the local engineers and pass on their skills. They are operating by the philosophy that it’s better to teach a man to fish than to catch a fish for him. We see aid-agency projects, for example, where consultants have introduced sophisticated computer controls for a river or irrigation system, and have run training programs for the local engineers. Here again, though, the results are mixed. One study found that such education programs succeed only half the time, and in most cases the local operators soon lose the skills they learned.

Others pin their hopes on increased privatization. With governments bankrupt, they believe private developers and engineering companies will furnish the means to build much needed infrastructure. This is a good idea because it means Third World governments won’t need to take on huge amounts of debt. Also, corporations are less likely to undertake irresponsible mega-projects if they have to be accountable for the economic, social and environmental impacts down the road. However, again the ethical waters are becoming muddy. Reportedly these developers are busy arranging contracts that slough off liability for future unforeseen environmental damage on to national governments, and so ultimately they are shifting the consequences of their projects back onto the poor.


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