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Civil engineers give aid to millions but they sometimes need help too

For the last couple of weeks NCE has been devoting space to mark the first anniversary of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti which left over 200,000 people dead and more than a 1M homeless and without jobs.

The scale of the engineering and social challenge is still immense. Despite huge international support and promises of billions of dollars in aid, the reality is that, for many Haitians, home is still a shelter and life hand to mouth. Rebuilding the vital infrastructure will take decades.

And as we read this week, fundamental reform of the way in which aid funding is allocated and spent is overdue. In particular, according to Royal Academy of Engineers Fellow Sir Richard Feachem, increased focus on civil engineering and the recovery of key infrastructure would benefit populations far more than simply providing drugs and healthcare training.

It is an interesting conundrum and perhaps is no surprise to any civil engineer with exposure to such disaster environments. Yet the fact that this issue is on the agenda highlights, once again, that civil engineering must redouble efforts to ensure that its voice is heard and skills utilised.

Natural disasters, after all, are certainly not going away. Whether it is floods in Brisbane or floods in Brazil, we will see civil engineers at the heart of the recovery, helping to rebuild lives in the immediate aftermath and planning for better, more sustainable societies in the future.

“Whether it is floods in Brisbane or floods in Brazil, we will see civil engineers at the heart of the recovery”

Yet while NCE and the national media rightly focuses attention on the plight of so many people around the world and the challenge of delivering assistance, we should also never lose sight of the day-to-day challenge faced by so many people closer to home.

The appeal this week by ICE president Peter Hansford on behalf of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Benevolent Fund underlines this point. Whether through illness or as a result of the recent economic downturn, an increasing number of civil engineers now find themselves in need of help themselves.

The fact that the Benevolent Fund has seen a 60% increase in applications for assistance this year tells its own story. Yet coupled with the continual downturn in donors, the fund faces one of its toughest times since it was set up in 1864. It now distributes, on average, £250k a year more than it brings in.

To many civil engineers the Benevolent Fund is just an optional tick-box on the annual ICE subscription form. And perhaps, as belts are tightening, the concept of supporting first world engineering professionals seems less attractive than helping those in a post disaster development world.

But as Hansford points out, for 150 years the fund has brought short and long term assistance to many across a spectrum of careers in the industry. And for a small annual commitment by each member it can continue to do so. A visit to www.bfice.org.uk will tell you how.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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