Canadian Consulting Engineer

Work Abroad: Tread Softly

October 1, 2001
By Bronwen Ledger

The ex-military chief from Nigeria stood tall and proud in his white African robes. His tunic matched the crisp linen cloths on the tables around him, but otherwise he looked incongruous in the formal...

The ex-military chief from Nigeria stood tall and proud in his white African robes. His tunic matched the crisp linen cloths on the tables around him, but otherwise he looked incongruous in the formal surroundings. Silver cutlery gleamed, coffee cups and glasses chinked, platters overflowed with fruit, pastry, eggs, meat. The abundance of western life was on display. Ishola Williams was the guest speaker at a breakfast meeting called by Transparency International at the faculty club of York University in Toronto in April. Williams was there to speak about Africa.

“Wherever people talk about Africa, the image is always of crisis, conflict, hunger,” he began. “Watching western television, that’s what you see. But it occurs to me that people are not getting the messages very clearly. You are like parents who hear babies cry and don’t know how to deal with it. The baby keeps crying. You’ve tried everything, and the baby is still crying.” He paused and looks round. “When the baby cries, the baby is sending a message. Why don’t you find out what that message is?”

In a torrent of words, Williams asks why it is that local populations are not benefiting from the continent’s rich deposits. “We have discovered that the people who sit on abundant mineral resources are the poorest in Congo; people in the Niger delta are the poorest in Nigeria. You go to any area in Africa where there are mineral resources, they are the poorest! Why? Something must be wrong.”

Williams’ is just one of the strident voices saying traditional western approaches to development in the Third World have failed because they have not helped the poor. Over the past decade funding and aid institutions like the World Bank and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) have faced growing criticisms that projects have ridden roughshod over the property rights and economic interests of local communities and often end up doing great environmental harm. Women and children, in particular, are seen as vulnerable to the upheavals wrought on their land and social structures by development such as mines, forestry, road building, power plants and hydroelectric dams. In all of these projects, of course, engineering plays a large role.

Canadian non-governmental organizations have been raising the alarm. Ottawa’s North-South Institute issued a report in 1998, that said, “Traditionally, social and environmental impacts have not been adequately addressed in engineering feasibility, studies, nor in the design process itself.”1 Toronto’s Probe International is more acerbic. “The World Bank causes environmental havoc, financial ruin, and social harm throughout the Third World,” says their web site. “The World Bank has financed dozens of disastrous dam projects, has supported road-building projects through the heart of the Amazon rainforest leading to massive deforestation, and has helped support toxic mining operations. Through it all, the Bank has shown a blatant disregard for the rights of the people most affected by its projects.” Critics also say there has been too much secrecy in projects involving Canadian corporations abroad. Development and Peace, an organization of the Roman Catholic Church, recently submitted 140,000 Canadian letters to Pierre Pettigrew, Minister for International Trade, asking for “greater accountability on the part of corporations, including the EDC in the activities they are involved in abroad.” EDC, of course, stands for Canada’s Export Development Corporation, which finances and commissions multi-million dollar contracts for consulting engineering firms.

Canadian consulting engineers are proud of their work in poorer countries. A glance down the list of projects entered in this year’s Canadian Consulting Engineering Awards shows that one fifth of them were from this sector. Besides paid commissions, engineers are volunteering their time and efforts in disaster relief programs like the recently formed RedR.

But when companies venture into developing countries, they tread into muddy ethical waters. For decades Canadian consultants have been going to places like Africa, Asia and Indonesia to design infrastructure that activists love to hate. Firms like SNC-Lavalin, Acres International and AMEC have exported their expertise in large dams and hydroelectric projects — projects that have become highly controversial because of their wholesale disruption of great swaths of land and watersheds, and because they often force massive relocations of people. Canadian engineers also lend their services in the mining field, projects that are criticized for leaving a heavily toxic trail. And in the past they took their expertise in designing Candu reactors to help developing countries build nuclear power plants.

According to Probe International, Canadian engineering firms backed by Canadian government financing have been involved in several controversial large dams These include the Manantali Power Project in the Senegal River Basin, the Dai Ninh Hydro Project in Vietnam, and the troubled Chamera I dam in India. More recent dam projects that are raising activist hackles are the Urra Dam in Colombia where paramilitary forces are believed to have kidnapped a local tribesman opposing the dam, and the Three Gorges Dam, the largest construction project in the world, under way in China — a project so controversial the World Bank has declined to fund it, and one in which 1.2 million people are being forced to move from their traditional land and homes.

Undoubtedly large hydro-electric dams have brought huge benefits, but there is a weight of expert evidence showing they are far from an unmitigated success. Professor Kader Asmal was the chair of the World Commission on Dams which interviewed 1,400 individuals from 50 countries and examined 1,000 dams. In his preface to the November 2000 final report, Asmal shows just how complex are the issues and how mixed the results:

“I saw dams built of dirt and dams generating no electricity; dams praised by ecologists and dams despised by engineers; dams used for centuries by indigenous peoples, dams boosting fisheries, dams causing deadly floods; dams changing river chemistry or increasing net greenhouse gas emissions. I saw dam benefits by-pass thirsty adjacent communities en route to the city, dams exhaust and erode rich soils through water logging and salinity. I saw dams displace no-one, dams create wetlands and work, dams cost thrice their budget, dams utterly abandoned and which had no symbolic value. Then I saw politicians approach rivers with ambitious, bureaucratic schemes, opposed by local activists shouting, ‘Save our beloved dam.’ … For the truth is no typical dam exists.”2

How do consulting engineers respond?

Are the social and economic upheavals caused by large engineering projects like dams the necessary price of progress? In order for developing countries to advance their economies and overall standards of living, do short-term sacrifices have to be made? Oskar Sigvaldason, P.Eng., president of Acres International of Toronto believes so.

“If you go back and look at the development of infrastructure in North America or Europe,” he says, “I don’t think you could ever say that when power projects were built people somehow got immediate direct benefit. Power projects were built because you wanted to electrify the country. Then you had a system that allowed people who could afford it to make investments in electrical things.”

Sigvaldason continues, “The justification for a dam is based on the overall net economic and socio-economic contribution to the nation and to the region, and to both the people who are benefiting from it, and to the people who are ‘disbenefiting’ from it.” He points out that dams should not be singled out: “There are lots of infrastructure developments around the world which have both a positive and a negative impact on people.”

He says Acres was one of the first companies to address the environmental, social and economic impact of projects when they developed a complete economic development plan and resettlement for the Mactaquac reservoir in Canada
in the 1960s. Now they have experts on staff devoted to studying these issues, and follow standards set by funding institutions like CIDA, US Aid, the World Bank, and United Nations. These organizations, he points out, have developed principles to protect the rights of affected communities, principles that are “based on very extensive input from environmental groups and various affected parties.”

Sigvaldason believes that the standards ensure anyone displaced should receive fair economic recompense: “When people do have to be relocated then they have to be provided with opportunities that are at least equal to or better than the opportunities they had prior to relocation. That’s a very fundamental principle.” The new provisions also take account of cultural upheavals: “You are invariably talking about groups of people that are of a certain ethnic composition. You would normally relocate them so as to retain the ethnic community, so it is not a random relocation.”

Richard Denham, P.Eng. of Ottawa has done a lot of overseas consulting for aid agencies in developing countries. He has seen the devastating effects of past engineering irrigation projects in the Aral Sea in Central Asia where water levels have shrunk drastically. “That is an amazing place,” he says, “because there have been gazillions of dollars spent on engineering in that area, and yet they have managed to dry up the Aral Sea.”

Still, he says, “I cannot bring it in my heart to blame the engineering community.” Instead he maintains that it was the Soviet government who made the decisions for that project, and that the responsibility lies on their shoulders for the desiccation: “A consulting engineer is only as good as his client,” he says. “The government made that decision that they wanted to provide irrigation for cotton. And so it is unlikely that anybody had a chance to stand back and ask, is this a good project?”

Denham has also travelled up the Yangtse River, site of the Three Gorges Dam in China. He doesn’t like the fact that the construction of the dam means that millions are relocated, but he suggests that in the end the benefits will outweigh the damage: “I believe from my little exposure to China that they have a huge hydro need. You can go into an office in Beijing that is lit with a 40 watt bulb. They need power to run refrigerators in order that people can keep their food from spoiling so that they don’t get sick, and so they can improve health in their villages. I think that’s a huge advance.”

Bruce Bodden, P.Eng. of Marshall Macklin Monaghan of Toronto has lived and worked extensively in the Middle East. Asked if he agrees we are helping Third World countries by giving them western infrastructure and technology, he replies: “Is it progress? Yes, if [otherwise] people are huddled around little coal oil lamps with sick kids in the background, and no roads and no doctors, and no heat.” He believes everyone has a right to the infrastructure that western countries enjoy, and that as people’s living conditions become more like ours, it will be more difficult for countries to abuse human rights.

Consulting engineers share the moral dilemma of many countries and companies these days about whether they should work in countries that don’t respect the equal rights of all human beings. Is it better to engage in business with repressive regimes in the hope of exerting a positive influence, or better to withdraw in moral uprightness? We saw that debate emerge over Beijing’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, for example.

Bodden suggests we shouldn’t be too self-righteous, nor raise the ethical bar too high. He points out that his and other companies work in countries like Saudi Arabia where women’s freedoms are curtailed, yet most Canadians would consider Saudi an acceptable trading partner.

“Secondly,” he says, “somebody in a Third World country might ask us, ‘What makes you think Canada’s record on human rights is without fault? You have people sleeping in the streets in Toronto; your record on the treatment of aboriginal people is open to criticism.” He adds, “We don’t live in a totally glass house, but if a part of our house has glass in it we should be careful not to throw stones.”

He concludes, “You have to look at the project you’re pursuing and ask, does it contribute to the problem, or is part of the solution? Or — as is often the case — is it just neutral?”

Life along the river

Sometimes, though, even after a new dam or power plant is built, the lights stay off for the poorest people. Grainne Ryder is with Probe International and the author of a 1990 book, Damming the Three Gorges: What Dam Builders Don’t Want You to Know. She earned a B.Sc. in water resource engineering at the University of Guelph in 1983, and afterwards spent seven years working in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries with CUSO. It was there that she came to distrust the promises made for large infrastructure.

“I’ve been in communities,” she says, “where 20 years later they are still trying to get electricity, or basic water supply — not to mention that they have already been devastated by a dam that has destroyed their fisheries or their best farmland.” She found that the compensation they received from the government didn’t amount to much: “The government would come in, give orders for people to move — this happened for dams and for forestry schemes as well. People were told they would get new land somewhere else, that they would get new livelihoods, and those didn’t materialize. So I saw that the people who were being displaced for development projects were among the poorest of the poor in that region.”

The benefits of the engineering went to industry, governments and cities. “It was development on the backs of the poor,” she says. The factories could run on cheap and abundant electricity, but without paying the true costs of that power.

Ryder insists that Probe International is not against development in itself. What they and citizens’ groups in places like Southeast Asia would like to see is a much more equitable and transparent planning and decision-making process. “That would help ensure that developments are environmental and socially acceptable, not just economically sound.”

“We also need to be more concerned with legal and democratic development,” she says. “If people everywhere were treated as if they had property rights, including the right to say no to a developer, big projects would take on a very different face.”

Ryder does not have a lot of time for consulting engineers. Her organization has battled for years to get access to information on development projects funded by organizations like CIDA and EDC, and it is a fierce critic of government funds being spent on infrastructure in developing countries.

To Ryder consulting engineers skew the decision-making process because even when they are supposedly doing “feasibility studies,” they carry an inherent bias to promote large infrastructure works. In 15 years she doesn’t recall seeing one study that concluded a project was too environmentally damaging to proceed. She says that because clients — usually central governments or corporations — set the scope of consultant studies, they do not pay enough attention to the local people’s needs. She explains: “I’ve spoken to fishermen along the Mekong River and asked them, Did you know a Canadian company is planning a series of dams on your river? And they are astounded — ‘Where do these companies come from?’ they ask. ‘What right do they have to come and propose this on our river? It would have been nice if they had come and asked us first.’ People there consider themselves to be the rightful decision-makers, not some foreign company that is backed by foreign aid.”

“The starting point for decisions has to be with the local people whose resources are in question,” she says. She also wants to see peer reviews of consultants’ recommendations done in Canada: “We’re talking about checks and balances,” she says.

Opening the door

Consulting engineers respond quickly to criticisms of pro-development bias. “I think that’s an incredibl
y unfair rap,” says Sigvaldason, “because basically it goes right to the heart of professional ethics. As consulting engineers we have a fundamental obligation to be honest, and to be ethical. When we produce a report, we recognize that we may have to defend that recommendation or conclusion in a court of law, to show that we have exercised good judgement.”

Hugh Irvine and Michael Jolliffe of AMEC in Toronto are equally adamant that their company’s reports are not skewed by their client’s self-interest. “It doesn’t happen,” says Irving. “It’s not in the nature of the individual; it’s not in the nature of the company. Ours is an engineering company, and if engineers are anything they are very particular about the quality of work they are doing.”

They do say, however, that the terms of reference a client gives them to study a project sometimes may be too narrow. In such a case, they say, they would come back and suggest that the scope be widened.

Richard Denham has also followed this approach. In Bombay he is working with R.V. Anderson to produce a 25-year master plan for the city’s waste water system. The consultants were asked to study plant ugrades and pipes, he says, but they went further and included “soft engineering” plans to hold consultations with the six million residents in the slums who don’t have sewers. The client didn’t necessarily want this, but the consultants gave it to them anyway.

Denham returns to first principles. “I call myself a civil engineer. That means I am supposed to understand the needs of the civil society.” Like Ryder, he thinks people affected at the grass roots level should have more say in the decisions on projects. “Where I think the consulting engineer needs to be more aware,” he says, “is in that linkage to the community. How do we involve the community more to decide what the project should be, how it should manifest itself, whether it should be something else? Sometimes the client doesn’t want that, but sometimes the door opens and we have a chance to do it.”

“Have engineers gone soft?” he asks. “Maybe they haven’t gone soft enough.”

At any rate, consulting engineers are edging into a softer mould. They are caught up in the new mood of ethical awareness in North America that is spinning along corporate and government corridors, bringing change. Within the past few years, professional and industry associations like the Association of Consulting Engineers have drawn up guidelines for ethical, environmental and social responsibility. Firms like AMEC, Marshall Macklin Monaghan and SNC-Lavalin are busy brushing up their corporate policies and posting them on their web sites, anxious to assure prospective clients and shareholders that they are driven by the purest motives.

Government aid and financing organizations are revising their policies. The Auditor General recently told EDC to be more open about its business dealings, and the agency is proposing new disclosure rules and environmental review procedures for projects. CIDA is also giving more say in projects to non-government and “civil-society” organizations. International laws are trying to curb corruption, manifested in Canada as a 1999 law, the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, which makes it an imprisonable offence to bribe a foreign government official. All these policy frameworks affect how engineers will operate within the Third World.

With one billion people in the southern hemisphere still with no clean water and two billion who lack proper sanitation, the world urgently needs engineering services and infrastructure. The West must help, but we must do it right. Halfway through his fiery talk at York University, Ishola Williams began talking about the need to “cleanse” African governments of corruption. The history of the past century has taught us only too well where that kind of talk can lead. And now the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington have shown how we must tread softly in all our dealings with non-western countries. Our intentions are good, but when misguided they can breed dissent and dissatisfaction with tragic consequences.

1 Canadian Corporations and Social Responsibility, p. 100. Canadian Development Report 1998. North-South Institute.

2 Dams and Development, A New Framework for Decision-Making. Final Report of the World Commission on Dams, sponsored by IUCN-World Bank, November 16, 2000.


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