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An ever present danger

Comment

For the last decade or so the most sought after training courses offered by disaster relief charity RedR have been those to boost personal security awareness and management techniques while working abroad.

Sadly, engineers and relief workers now increasingly present a real and very soft target for countless groups of terrorists, bandits, gangs - call them what you will - all over the globe.

The irony is that, not so long ago, working abroad was the glamorous end of the profession. Working overseas was the start of a successful and usually lucrative career. It was a move that guaranteed excitement, responsibility and reward.

But no more. Not only are there fewer overseas postings available for young engineers - as NCE highlighted a year ago (NCE 16 October 2003), but there are fewer young people willing to take on the associated risks.

There has certainly been a massive increase in the dangers of working in the Middle East - specifically Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - since the 9/11 attacks. Yet it is not true to say that this is the first time engineers working abroad have had to take extra care over security.

There have always been numerous trouble spots on the expatriot civil engineer's radar all around the world.

Working in Nigeria, Angola and many other African states during the 1970s and 1980s was not without risk. Equally, places such as Iran, Beirut, Libya and Afghanistan have seen some pretty challenging times for those trying to reinstate or construct infrastructure.

More recently, countries closer to home like Bosnia, Kosovo and many of the former Soviet states have at times been considered off-limits to all but the most adventurous of civil engineers.

So in many ways what we are seeing today in Iraq is nothing new. Engineers from around the world have always been needed in post-conflict zones to work with humanitarian organisations during the initial reconstruction of basic amenities.

Working around or within post conflict feuding - even civil unrest or war - has always been a fact of life.

The difference perhaps now is we see Western engineers and relief workers targeted as part of the enemy rather than innocent bystanders caught up in someone else's war. Instant access to world media means that hostage taking becomes a huge political weapon.

The result is that British firms such as KBR, Amec and Costain are spending large amounts of money on security yet cannot guarantee safety for staff.

Foreign Office advice right now is not to go there.

From a humanitarian point of view it is impossible not to feel sympathy for anyone held hostage in terrible circumstances. Yet knowing the risks, it is reasonable to expect any engineer thinking of working in Iraq to weigh the rewards on offer against the risks.

Yet there will continue to be desperate humanitarian need in an increasing number of trouble spots around the world. Like it or not, engineers are vital to creating the first steps towards civilised life. They will always be in demand and they will always be at risk.

The dangers of working somewhere like Iraq must be controlled through sensible security measures and proper training. But ultimately the decision to go will always be down to the bravery of individual engineers their desire to help.

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