Humanitarian Engineering by ECYL Mohammed Ba-Aoum

Engineers have made huge efforts to make unimaginable dreams reality, yet their efforts at meeting basic human needs in developing countries are missing. Today most engineering talents are busy with creating luxurious technology for rich customers. According to Paul Polak (2008), “the majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and service exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customer. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.”

humanitarian engineering

Among the other 90%, there are 0.8 billion people who lack clean water, 2.4 billion people who lack adequate sanitation, 1.6 billion people who have no access to electricity. Moreover, malnutrition kills 11 million children under the age of five every year. These facts should put a moral obligation on the engineering profession to direct some effort to meet basic needs of those people. Many of the challenges that face developing countries and underserved communities are related to engineering in some way. Water filtration, building sanitation and housing, designing nutrition supply chain and energy generation is at the heart of the engineering profession. There is an urgent need to involve engineers in solving underserved communities’ problems. Recently, a new movement within engineering education emerged to induce engineers to practice more humanitarian role. This movement was called humanitarian engineering. Humanitarian Engineering emphasizes the importance of preparing engineers with adequate knowledge and practice to meet underserved communities’ needs. It is a movement to escape the “social captivity of engineering” by capitalism or nationalism or some other form of wealth and power. Encyclopedia Britannica defines humanitarian engineering as “the application of engineering to improve the well-being of marginalized people and disadvantaged communities, usually in the developing world”.

Humanitarian Engineering is an old practice since engineers as individuals have always been involved in humanitarian work. However, as a collective organized action, it is relatively new and only after year 2000, the concept started to emerge in the academia. As a new field of research, Humanitarian Engineering faces several challenges especially in terms of formulating an ethical framework to guide humanitarian engineering education, research and practice. Humanitarian Engineering ethical framework should address topics related to humanitarian engineers’ intervention in foreign countries, discipline and ethics, which humanitarian engineers should maintain during their work, rules of humanitarian engineering work, humanitarian engineers’ rights, humanitarian engineers’ responsibilities, etc. Unfortunately, these topics are not highlighted in conventional engineering code of ethics, which push humanitarian engineers to look for another ethical guide. In the personal I found the Earth Charter a great source to guide my humanitarian engineering practice and community development efforts and I believe it can play a significant role in formulating a comprehensive ethical framework for Humanitarian Engineering profession. The Earth Charter principles that emphasize sustainability, ecological protection, the eradication of poverty, equitable economic development, respecting human rights, promoting democracy and peace are at the core of humanitarian engineering practices. Therefore, I highly encourage people interested in harnessing the power of engineering in facing humanitarian challenges to benefit from the Earth Charter principle in guiding their practice.

Written by: Mohammed Ba-Aoum