Thursday, April 16, 2009

Promoting good practices in disaster response – Rights based engineering

The sphere project
Humanitarian charter and minimum standards in disaster response

Eng Aslam Saja
(Published in ENSL, 2007)

We all might wonder what does “Sphere” mean? Is there anything in Sphere to do with engineering? It says “Humanitarian Charter”. So it might not be related to engineering at all. It must be referred by the people like Lawyers or other people who deal with legal issues. It talks about the rights of the people. So as engineers, who supposed to talk about technical standards, design and so on, how this engineering is linked with rights of the people or similar legal issues in disaster response? There may be several unanswered questions like this among the engineering community who are outside the humanitarian arena, sometimes within itself also.

Disasters are not mutually exclusive aspects to the engineering community. It does spread out in all sectors of engineering whether it to be civil, communication, chemical or electrical. This is because of the reason that the definition of the term “disaster management”. It is not also restricted to its so called different phases which are preparedness, mitigation or prevention and spin around in the post disaster phase starting from relief, rescue and immediate response to medium and long term interventions of rehabilitation, reconstruction and development. If we carefully notice the link between these phases of disasters and the whole life cycle of human being, there is hardly any void area in between. Similarly if engineering is seen in relation to the life cycle of human being or with the phases of disasters, anyone can simply recognise the fact that these all are simply strongly linked one or the other cannot be seen in isolation. Because of this, it is being attempted here to raise the awareness of engineers in the right based approach in whole development cycle particularly through this article in the disaster response sector.

Now we will look at the birth of “Sphere”? This is not a new term for most of us as we are curious in maths. But this is Sphere project. This is right based in legal terms. It advocates for the right to life with dignity of the disaster affected people whom with some of our engineering colleagues working with (Whoever works in the post disaster phase, but not limited to). However Sphere talks on immediate post phase of emergency though it can also easily linked with the preparedness phase of disaster. What does it contain?

The corner stone of this project is the humanitarian charter. This humanitarian charter is based on international legal laws such as International humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law. Three basic principles have derived from these three laws are “the right to life with dignity”, “distinction between combatants and non – combatants” and “non – forced return”.

These are more in legal term which we as engineers are not much familiar with. However it is important for all relief workers to understand this. We know our engineering colleagues are permanently or temporarily working in this sector. Whenever disaster hits in the island, we rush to the field as volunteers, well wishers and play different roles besides engineering. Hence knowing to work with disaster affected community doing no harm in our approach should be clearly internalised.

Roaming back to the sphere project, it has technical chapters which we as engineers deal with. Out of four technical chapters, two sectors on WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and shelter and site planning are directly relevant to the engineering. However it also talks about the minimum standards common to all sectors in the first chapter. Engineers have a greater role to play in times of disasters as it spreads around different dimension of the human life. It does relate to daily routine of the community.

As we all agree without any disagreement that the engineering plays a major role in all most all the phases of disaster management from the emergency preparedness to post disaster community development. So what can be done to engineer the good practices in what we do as we are professional community of engineers? In the context of the conflict, humanity faces big crisis or great challenges in one hand, on climate change which can trigger out the natural disasters and poverty reduction on the other hand, to vision for the first target for the millennium development goal.

Water, sanitation, hygiene, shelter and settlement are of utmost important sectors to be prioritised in disaster preparedness and response. In this regard Sphere plays a major role in the above mentioned sectors where engineering is the key. As far as engineering is concerned, there is a need to focus on the good practices as it directly relate to the needs of the communities. Sphere talks about the right based approach where every emergency/relief worker should be able to relate their work with the rights of the every human being at risk or any one who is affected by any disaster or whom life is threatened.

Sphere is structured in such a way that every can easily ensure and related the rights of the community with the real need of the disaster affected community or the community which is threatened by any means. It has minimum standards which need to be met (It is applicable globally which is a basic human need in times of disaster to be met), key indicators which ensures that the corresponding minimum standards are met and guidance notes which will help to apply these standards in different contexts with flexibilities.

Let take an example from civil engineer. As a civil engineer who works in water and sanitation sector in disaster response with a disaster affected community should be able to understand basic requirements to be met for a better dignified life of the community. Some of us might have heard about public health engineering which most of the time handled by a civil engineer in this sector. So it is public health related which we may think a medical officer should need to deal with. But it is not so. It is a group of multi disciplinary team effort. So these all different sectors can not be seen in isolation in the community development perspective where all these impacts of the engineering fall in. But no can argue against this different division or sector based approach as it is simply because of the reason for understanding, easy management and for other acceptable reasons to overcome several difficulties in reality. Therefore, discussions should be triggered out to probe among the engineering community to promote the good practices in our working area as it is more than the positive attitude in the management terms that we usually expect from an engineer.

Those who are interested in sphere, can visit, and for further discussion points on this topic can be emailed to

Community Development and Engineering Interventions

Community Development and Engineering Interventions
Eng Aslam Saja
(Published in Engineering News Sri Lanka (ENSL), 2007)

This article starts with an attempt to search the answer for the more trivial question in mind which is posed among the community development practitioners. “Where the professional expertise is needed?”

In search of answering this question, it is necessary to think outside the box and to work with others, with other professionals and with skilled, non – professionals, to make effective use of their existing skills, knowledge and attitudes in the community development. In addition, new skills are needed to work with the very poor communities where the major attention is given in the development sector.

Hence it becomes an increased importance to identify the gaps and to develop an effective framework for bridging the gaps in order to devise the possible mechanisms to address the issues and thus working to achieve the common goal which ultimately benefits the community as whole.

So as we are a community of engineers who play a major role in the development sector need to recognise this fact and need to think about launching the new initiatives which will result in a better system than for ever in the development.

In fact, Technology has a role to play, but it needs to be used intelligently. New forms of water resource management technique and the land use planning for example need to be explained simply i.e. to be transformed which can be understood by the community itself.

It is absolutely pointless in addressing the issues which are not a need of the community and priorities identified (i.e. rather than a urgent need to be addressed, Here we try to define the priority as a solution to the root causes of the problems) within those needs.

For example, to analyse this issue cause – effect and means – ends diagrams can be used which is shown below.

Problem Tree Objective Tree

Effects -------------------- Ends

Problem Objective

Causes Means
Many people like politicians and other representatives of the community including the engineers, evaluate the success of the programmes by the physical construction. When they visit the community sites of a programme, they want to see the facilities and infrastructures. There is no doubt that we need all these, but we fail to understand that these are means of the community empowerment for the causes identified individually, but they are not ends unless this contribute to the whole system of the healthy community which may be directly alleviate the effects of the causes or indirectly contributing to solve the main problems in the community.

No matter whether we have a good sophisticated physical system, but we need to make sure that the community will ultimately benefits from that. In order to achieve this it is also necessary to focus on empowering the people not just only developing the hardware. This is where the sustainable development is being spoken by the community development practitioners. But as most of the engineers are involved in the development sector in our nation and being the nation as a developing country, we should be ready to learn and promote good practices not only in physical development but in the whole community development. (i.e. Not only focusing hardware development but integrating it with the main focus on the self reliance and sustainable community development). We also need to note that the term community development should not be seen as social, economical and political empowerment. But it includes technology, shared values, beliefs and ideas.

One of the slogans as it is being used in management training is, “If you do not know where you are going, then any road will do” (Training handout “Knowing your goals” – Dr. Phil Bartle). This can be applied here as well. It is easy to run around, looking busy, arranging meetings, getting buildings and latrines constructed, talking to community leaders (Even in most of the development projects, this is rare), moving advocacy groups, without moving forward in accomplishing genuine community targets and strengthening it on its own foundation.

So again with the focus on engineers in development projects, we need to expand our horizons and ready to listen and learn from the community and be able to transform our technical, analytical and managerial expertise in solving the real community problems. There is need of paradigm shift in relation to development which linked with the engineering also in our nation. As we have creative and innovative young generation of engineers within our nation, it can be anticipated that these will be addressed and appropriate mechanisms and techniques will be explored.

Finally, it is also expected that these series of articles will help at least to initiate the dialog among us and stir up the ideas among the engineers not only in the development sector, but in all other sectors.


Eng. Aslam Saja (Published in Engineering News Sri Lanka (ENSL), 2006)

Engineering has a vital role in addressing the challenges arising time to time all over the world. It intersects almost every aspect of the lives of people in every nook and corner of the world.

As far as engineers and professionals (other professionals within the engineering sectors) working in the humanitarian sector are concerned, despite the fact that they require a global perspective in their work it is also necessary to give emphasize in the local context. This is becoming an increased importance in this country especially for engineers working with international and national humanitarian organizations and development agencies.

So this article attempts to address some of the good practices that we as a community of engineers of this nation should practice in development activities in Sri Lanka. Some of the keys to ensure better social, ethical and environmental performance within the humanitarian sector as engineers can be put in the following points.

Encouraging open discussions and analysis of development activities and the role technology and engineering play in it.
Building transparency and accountability mechanisms into planning.
Building local capacity and focus on requirements during design and planning which will lead to sustainability of works.
Placing engineering within local context and knowledge to ensure appropriate and sustainable design.
Promoting empowerment and participation in decision making, implementation, monitoring and evaluation processes especially of the vulnerable and end user in the communities.
Building cross sector relationships and dialogue to exchange ideas in order to work effectively.
Seeking alignment between the development partners and wider development programs with a focus on sustainable livelihoods and access to essential services.

Hence in order to face the overall challenges linked up with engineering it has been realized that the development of the required skills, knowledge and attitudes amongst engineering professionals in order to address them are of utmost important.

Solving the problems primarily linked up with the society requires engineers to work in partnership with other interconnected disciplines to ensure that key decision makers take a view of sustainability issues and enable sustainable solutions.

It is important to consider what all these challenges mean for those engaged in developing the skills and competencies of engineers.

There is above all a need to make connections to people’s everyday lives, to demonstrate that learning and understanding about the societies and the challenging issues of our time are essential components of learning for life in this part of the world.
The goals are benchmarks for progress towards a vision of development, peace and human rights, guided by the values of freedom, equity, justice, tolerance, respect for nature and solidarity. These can also be achieved through promoting a culture of learning and understanding the context clearly where they are applied. This could be the correct time to address these issues, since lots of development initiatives are being launched by several organizations in all parts of the island after the 26th December tsunami.

All in all the essential skills for all (emphasizing here for engineers) in this new era are much open to flexibility, ability to learn, transfer learning into new contexts and practicing and reinforcing them in community development.

Apart from these intercultural understanding , ability to understand others, respecting others views and engage with the every changing economic and social challenges in this country are of more concerns to young generation of engineers.

1. Development Education Journal, October 2005.
2. Skills and Learning for a Global Society – the challenges for the Engineer, Douglas Bourn, May 2005.