In a society that is so connected, with integrated technology and a constant need for 24 hours updates, we find ourselves more knowledgeable of what is going on around us. There is much greater potential for somebody in Australia to know about the humanitarian plight of others somewhere else in the world, and this has seen a consciousness of different societal problems integrate within our common mindset, as well as an increase in humanitarian work and projects.
No doubt this is a good thing, yet now there is an emerging body of research that examines just how humanitarian ‘humanitarian work’ is. It has been found that often, projects are ineffective, or not sustainable, or waste valuable resources. Furthermore, different humanitarian organisations have been known to compete for limited government funding, as well as the media spotlight, rather than work together and spread their energy over multiple areas. It becomes easy to view ourselves as the heroes helping out one single collective of people, often with a plan that hasn’t had any contribution from the local population. This kind of attitude ignores the individual needs of people within a population, as well as the needs of one community compared to another. The old saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” is relevant when we consider long-term, user specific solutions to problems. Once you begin to scratch the surface, you will see the complexity in providing humanitarian assistance; political context, climate, local resources, funding and sustainability are all issues that do not have one-answer-fits-all solutions.
“Appropriate technology” is a way of thinking about humanitarian engineering problems that gained traction in the 1970s. Spurred by a disappointment in the effects of humanitarian efforts, scholars and engineers tried to come up with a different way of solving the problem. Particular areas to target with appropriate technology are the longevity of their projects, as well as the empowerment of local people. Over the years it has moved from simply being a vision for a better place to a tangible methodology that seeks to achieve specific goals. Practitioners have also begun introspectively looking at engineering failures to see where further improvements can be made. Perhaps we find a lack of these ideas in humanitarian work due to negligence on behalf of certain organisations, but more likely they are a result of improper planning and treating the symptoms of problems, rather than the problems themselves.
In a recent introductory workshop, Monash students were asked to design a system to provide clean water to a school. They were encouraged to examine the real constraints that such a project would have on the school and its community. Students had to consider: an already limited supply of water, the cost of materials in a place where the average income is $2.5 a day, a design that was easy to replicate, easy to teach and would not be easily broken by inquisitive kids. Physical considerations like these often get overlooked, but so do less tangible concepts; like how can we convince a community that the water they have used for generations is actually not good for consumption? Probably the most foreign concept to students is that the answers for these real world solutions are neither always clear, nor ascertainable. Unlike classroom problems, there isn’t a solution at the back of the book or a tutor to guide you to the correct, concrete answer. Exposure to these kinds of situations is important, as students may not necessarily encounter problems like these within ideal situations in the labs or tute rooms.
Engineers Without Borders is an organisation that has been running summits and tours that help engineering students achieve the flexible life skills mentioned above. There are 2 summits being organised in 2016: one from the 25th of June until the 8th of July and another in between July 11-26th, both of which will be hosted in Cambodia. The purpose of these events is to acquaint engineering students with a local community and get them to see first hand how the community functions day-by-day. Then groups of students must work on projects that they feel address various humanitarian aspects of engineering.
Engineering students will be able to apply their knowledge in real-life situations, and will see the crossroads of theoretical and practical knowledge necessary to tackle such problems. Actually knowing how to use and apply the knowledge you have studied so hard for is essential for any graduating student. It is great to see a push from the university to equip their students with not only the tools to take on the plethora of challenges that await them, but also the knowledge and understanding of which tools to use in a given circumstance.