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Putting in the ground work

Analysis - Engineers are bypassing major charities and aid organisations to carry out localised relief work, says Ed Owen.

The Asian tsunami of December 2004 galvanised the engineering community to offer its services to help rebuild the devastated region. But many engineers were left frustrated that their offer of relief work was not taken up by the large charities.

Since then many companies, reacting to pressure from staff, have found alternative ways to contribute.

Engineering relief charity RedR-IHE's head of humanitarian services Dave Hampson says there has been a move away from large charity and relief agency projects.

'If the large agencies are not able to use them [the companies], then they will try different ways to get involved, ' he says.

Consultant Halcrow was heavily involved in the tsunami clean-up and raised £76,000 from staff donations and matched funds. It quickly realised that this money could be put to work more efficiently by its own staff on the ground. So the Halcrow Foundation was born in early 2005 and achieved charitable status in October (NCE 26 October).

It initially focused on tsunamiaffected areas by building a school and houses in Sri Lanka, and nding a shing trawler and school uniforms for communities in Banda Aceh.

The foundation is now looking at water projects in Malawi and a sanitation project in Nairobi's Kibera slum - the setting for the lm The Constant Gardener.

Mouchel Parkman is also involved in local development work. It supports the charity Habitat for Humanity and works on a project on the island of Zanzibar. 'There you can build a simple house for £1,235 that can house six to eight people, ' explains operating group director Bob MacDonald.

'We put in £5,000 seed money, and the utilities group staff have a target of £25,000 to build 30 houses, and we will y people out to help with construction.' The idea came from a staff survey showing that 70% wanted to do more. Now the hope is that as staff return from Zanzibar their experiences will encourage others to get involved, and so the project will snowball.

Arup has taken a different tack. This year the company has made a strong commitment to WaterAid, offering skills, money and ideas to the charity, the company's designated cause.

The link with WaterAid also marks a change in direction for Arup, which wants to move further into development projects.

Arup is set to fund two water supply schemes in Nepal and a third in Nigeria for WaterAid.

In addition, it will use three projects in Madagascar, Bangladesh and Zambia to launch its new business Arup International Development.

'Our staff are doing the design work and other components, and putting together the whole package. One advantage of the engagement is that it gives staff an opportunity to experience that kind of challenge, ' says Arup board member and chairman of the company's steering group David Singleton.

So far the team is learning to expect the unexpected. The Zambia water supply project is on hold after a herd of elephants trampled the village where the scheme was under way.

Mott MacDonald has an in-house education consultancy, Cambridge Education, to develop pro bono work in Africa, boosting opportunities for teachers. Schemes are running in Kenya and South Africa and are to be extended to the Caribbean, Uganda, Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia.

Pete Sweetnam is a longtime humanitarian worker and trustee of RedR. He agrees that localised efforts can make an enormous difference and that the key to sustainable improvement is to boost the local skillset. 'We need to build local capacities to make a lasting bene whether managerial, with engineering or whatever.

'Straight commercial knowledge and know-how can be used. Companies need to lead and improve skills. Little changes can make big differences. For example, if you can show local people the latest way to pour concrete, then these skills will mean that you have higher quality, cheaper bridges, which is a lasting benet.' Sweetnam worries that some less high-profile areas needing support may be forgotten. 'There are some areas, such as Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo that could really benet from public engagement. You have to arrange funds and raise awareness. For the Tsunami this was okay, but other projects may be forgotten in time. The Pakistani earthquake did not capture the same support.

Engineers have a lot that they can add to that process.' While RedR focuses on disaster relief and individual companies offer their own schemes there is still room for individuals to contribute.

Now in its fth year, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) places young engineers into schemes where their skills can make a difference. Younger people are often rejected by larger charities because of their desire for more experienced engineers in the ld. EWB already works on projects supported by Arup, Whitbybird and Buro Happold.

Tom Newby, from EWB and Buro Happold, explains: 'The key difference between what we do and what RedR does is that RedR responds to disasters.

'EWB is in long-term development. We both supply skills - even to the same organisations - but on different projects.

For example, after the tsunami, EWB would supply long-term, rather than immediate disaster management.' However, Sweetnam says that while the enthusiasm of young engineers is always needed, experienced staff make the biggest difference, 'What is difcult to attract is the experienced engineer. Such people can lead by example and make the biggest difference, ' he says.

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