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Engineers can make a big difference to international aid work

On returning from a six month spell with Oxfam helping the Vietnamese boat people in Malaysian refugee camps, a young engineer named Peter Guthrie was disappointed to find that there was no way to find another willing engineer to carry on his vital humanitarian work.

His response was to set up a register of engineers willing to give their time and knowledge to disaster relief efforts and from which relief agencies could easily source the vital engineering skills needed in the field.

That was back in 1980 and this week engineering disaster relief charity RedR celebrated its 30th year of providing engineering expertise and training in some of the most challenging parts of the world.

“It’s about providing the right people at the right time,” Guthrie explained to guests at this week’s birthday celebrations. While RedR’s role as a provider of services to relief agencies meant it was not always visible to the public, he said, its role in “the relief of suffering and the saving of lives” remained undeniable.

Hats off to the man. Most engineers talk about entering the profession with a desire to make a difference and to leave a mark on society – the “I built that” moment. Yet few will ever have built something quite as important, quite as life-saving or quite as life-changing as RedR.

Over the last 30 years it has posted thousands of engineers around the world to tackle disasters ranging from famine in Ethiopia, genocide in Rwanda, crisis in Bosnia and Kosovo, war in Darfur, tsunami in South Asia and more recently earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti.

And by helping to provide clean water supplies, shelter, transport routes logistics and security it has probably saved or improved the lives of millions.

But alongside the business of providing life-saving emergency engineering skills, RedR has also developed world-leading training programmes and consultancy services to teach local relief workers vital safety and security skills and other techniques such as setting up and maintaining temporary camps.

RedR’s programmes last year trained over 3,400 relief workers in 20 different countries including Sri Lanka, Haiti, Sudan and Pakistan. And these are people who are now better able to look after themselves and to rebuild and sustain their post-disaster communities free from aid or outside intervention.

RedR president HRH The Princess Royal emphasised this point. “RedR is about working with people not for people,” she reminded guests at the celebration.

“There is now a clear recognition of the need to employ local aid workers and leave a knowledge base.”

So as we press on with our daily post spending review battles to provide the vital infrastructure needed to sustain our modern, affluent lives in developed towns and cities across the UK, it is worth reflecting on our good fortune.

For it is not the same the world over. Yet thanks to the inspiration of one passionate and forward thinking engineer in 1980 – and a huge amount of hard work by hundreds of staff and volunteers in the 30 years since – engineering continues to make a difference.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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