Roundtable Discussion: The Intersection of Humanitarian Action, Social Justice, and Sustainable Community Development
In doing their work, engineers may face circumstances where issues of social injustice or environmental vulnerabilities arise, and/or humanitarian actions have to be taken. The subject of the roundtable discussion was how engineering and engineering ethics research, practice, and education could be improved so engineers are better prepared to deal with these circumstances. Presenters and discussants were asked to consider the following questions: “What research and practical efforts are needed? What sources of support for these efforts exist and can be promoted?”
Sheila Jasanoff, Science and Technology Studies, Kennedy School, Harvard University, moderated the session. Presenters were Carlos Bertha, Department of Philosophy, U.S. Air Force Academy; Regina Clewlow, founding director, Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), and energy fellow and Ph.D. candidate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); and Juan Lucena, Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society Advisory Group (CEES-AG) member, Liberal Arts and International Studies Division, Colorado School of Mines. The discussants were Garrick Louis, Systems Engineering, University of Virginia; Bill Wallace, Wallace Futures Group and Engineers Without Borders (EWB) International; and Dennis Warner, senior technical advisor, Catholic Relief Services.
THE TEACHING OF ENGINEERING ETHICS
In the first presentation, Carlos Bertha, Department of Philosophy, U.S. Air Force Academy, addressed the question of who should teach ethics and engineering ethics. He said he could draw on his
philosophical training and his current career, as well as his training and professional experience as a mechanical engineer in both design and construction in civilian and military life here in the United States and, most recently, in Afghanistan. He also noted that in talking about community sustainable development and social justice he could draw on his experience as a member of the South Carolina National Guard and the U.S. Northern Command whose Joint Support Group responded to Hurricane Katrina.
Dr. Bertha focused on the teaching of engineering ethics education. He noted that practicing engineers often criticize the philosophical approach to teaching ethics for being too theoretical, while philosophers often criticize applied courses as teaching compliance rather than ethics. He suggested that a casuistical approach, a focus on ethical issues in particular cases, would help improve engineering practice. He argued that philosophers might contribute to engineering courses by providing ethical analyses of cases being developed or used in engineering departments. Philosophers could teach these course components or help engineering faculty teach them.
A casuistical approach would require that engineering students recognize that no mathematical formula can provide “the one” solution. However, the correct approach is not “all subjective” either. It entails arguing through the ethical content of a specific case and identifying the morally relevant aspects of the case. A provisional resolution might be developed, but it might have to be changed later.
“[T]hey [students] need to wrestle with the fact that there are situations for which there are no formulas and that the best you can do is put together a cogent argument.”
Carlos Bertha, U.S. Air Force Academy
In his work in Afghanistan, Dr. Bertha said, it was important to guard against paternalism, that is, assuming that the intervening party (in this case, the engineer) knows how to solve the problem (and that the home party wants to be passive). It was also important to guard against moral relativism, for instance, a situation in which the intervening party may condone bribery because it is common practice. Exchanges that educate engineers about cultural differences would help them approach sustainable community development in foreign countries, such as Afghanistan, more effectively, he said. He suggested forming multinational engineer-
ing and construction partnerships that include small business partners in underdeveloped countries.
CURRICULUM-BASED SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS
Regina Clewlow is currently an energy fellow and Ph.D. candidate in engineering management at MIT. She came to the program after spending six years as founding director of ESW. Her classes now include problems of social justice and engineering, management, and society, called “complex engineering systems.” The nomenclature may reflect an attempt by engineers to recognize the importance of including social behavior in engineering studies; it also reflects a recognition of connections between engineering, society, public policy, and management.
ESW is a group that engages faculty and students in curriculum-based sustainable development projects around the world and in the United States. For example, the goal of a project might be to improve access to clean water and sanitation, or, in the United States, it might focus on sustainability challenges and promoting alternative energy. Ms. Clewlow challenged her listeners to think about how engineering ethics research and education can improve engineering projects in the contexts of humanitarian crises and social and environmental issues.
ESW, she said, does this in a number of ways. It encourages its campus chapters to link projects to students’ grades, which would ensure that they would be attentive to discussions of humanitarian and social justice issues. Plugging projects into the curriculum, she said, also ensures that students will have some oversight, which is important for their protection, as well as for more effective project outcomes. Because projects often entail skills in numerous disciplines, they often require a lead instructor and co-instructor. The most effective projects are launched by universities with strong interdisciplinary programs.
Ms. Clewlow also explained the rationale for involving local partners and undertaking projects that last for a substantial period of time so that local priorities can be well understood and results can be sustained by the communities served by projects. In closing, she reiterated the need for engineering ethics research on effective ways for engineers to engage in sustainable community development and the need for practical resources for the engineering community that decides to engage in such projects. Specific resources depend on project specifics,
but all require adequate supervision and multidisciplinary and well-experienced expertise.
INTEGRATING CRITERIA FOR CONSIDERING HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE IN ENGINEERING CURRICULA AND PROFESSIONAL CODES OF ETHICS
The third presentation, by Juan Lucena, CEES-AG member, Liberal Arts and International Studies Division, Colorado School of Mines, was on relationships between engineering and the historical, ideological, and institutional dimensions of humanitarianism and sustainable community development. Dr. Lucena proposed changes in curricula and codes of ethics to prepare engineers to work in circumstances that involve humanitarian and social issues. He contended that engineers must understand how the social history and organizational contexts in which they operate affect the choices they can make and the outcomes likely to come from those choices, as well as how they affect the problem-solving approaches with which they are familiar. Students must recognize that someone with a desire to help often proceeds without questioning whether help is wanted or thinking about how such well-intentioned “help” might provoke a crisis. Based on historical frameworks for humanitarianism, and even sustainable community development, a problematic status quo may sometimes be left as is. For example, if the situation for the hungry may become measurably better by using more environmentally benign agricultural methods, but yet unjust power structures would also be strengthened, it might be less destructive to leave the situation as it is.
Professor Lucena and his colleagues developed the following guidelines for deciding whether to provide humanitarian assistance:
Will the engineering work promote the good of all people?
How might this project protect and promote human rights?
Is the engineering solution likely to solve a humanitarian crisis?
Will the engineering intervention address fundamental human needs?
Will it provide benefits for those who are presently underserved?
Is the work more compatible with not-for-profit than for-profit enterprises?
What is the likelihood that the product, process, or system will be sustainable?
Have the cultural exigencies of all stakeholders been taken into account?
Successful humanitarian and sustainable community development, Dr. Lucena maintained, requires attention to the social dimensions that influence the successful adoption of a technology; to community capabilities rather than deficiencies; to interrelationships and interdependencies in communities; and to the need for community ownership and buy-in.
“Quite often the students and practicing engineers do not realize that actually it does make a difference when you come with an imprint of the [U.S.] Agency for International Development or the World Bank, and that makes a difference and creates a power imbalance wherever you are operating…. ”
Juan Lucena, Colorado School of Mines
These considerations could be incorporated into traditional engineering ethics education and professional codes, and the designers of engineering design projects and service learning projects could assess those projects according to these considerations. For example, the National Society of Professional Engineers might develop a separate code component for engineers working in these contexts. ABET could develop a specific criterion for humanitarian engineering programs, whereby students would be expected to demonstrate an ability to recognize community capabilities and worldviews different from their own. Dr. Lucena suggested that employers of engineers in these contexts could also include that criterion in hiring and decision making. Finally, funding agencies might use such criteria in evaluating the projects they support.
Garrick Louis, Systems Engineering Department, University of Virginia, opened the discussion with some basic questions about defining “development” and “community.” For example, should we assume that our hosts use the same definitions we use? He then raised the issue of the distribution of risks and benefits and posed two further questions, about “process” and “product.” Process, he said, is about motivation and the need for the engineering intervention; about how the community will be engaged; and about exit strategies. “Product” is about sus-
tainable results and capacity building and expected research and education products. Process and product need careful thought before people engage in a community development activity, so that whatever is done is acceptable and results can be sustained. Product in particular may have a focus on capacity building, both in communities to be helped and in the students who undertake the projects. For faculty, product may also include the potential for publications and grants.
Dr. Louis noted that there are a variety of imperatives for outsiders entering into communities. They may be responding to moral imperatives or to their interest in promoting new social or technical knowledge. He argued that successful interventions require a focus on capacity development, leaving communities with the capabilities to handle the technical, social, and financial aspects associated with project assistance, and even with the ability to teach other communities what they have learned.
Bill Wallace, of Wallace Futures Group and EWB International, stressed the urgency of addressing the problems facing the world today—particularly in environmental problems. Sustainability is a matter of necessity, he said, as two recent books had made clear, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them by J. F. Rischard (Basic Books, 2003) and Capitalism as if the World Matters by J. Porritt (Earthscan, 2006). Dr. Wallace said he expected to take information criteria and checklist items (particularly the need for collaboration and careful listening) that had been presented during the workshop back to EWB to use in planning future projects.
Before turning to the final discussant, session moderator Sheila Jasanoff, Science and Technology Studies, Kennedy School, Harvard University, noted that the effectiveness of aid in an emergency may depend greatly on understanding the psychology and needs of the community. As an example, she cited the response of a fundamentalist mission to India that brought popular sweets to people in the aftermath of a disaster. The recipients appreciated the gift, while ignoring the team from Doctors Without Borders that was trying to meet their medical needs but didn’t know how to engage their trust.
The final discussant, Dennis Warner, Senior Technical Advisor, Catholic Relief Services, reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of engineering approaches to humanitarian crises, focusing on why current approaches, driven by market and commercial forces, pose challenges to engineering professionalism. Mr. Warner proposed that a branch of engineering be established, called “humanitarian engineering,” that
would focus on engineering interventions to address injustices and improve necessary services for people in need. He highlighted six areas in which practices and guidelines toward this end might be improved: university education, volunteer service, codes of ethics, legislation for national service, private sector support, and media promotion.
GENERAL DISCUSSION AND WRAP-UP
In the general discussion at the end of the meeting, participants invited each other to get acquainted with resources that they believed would be helpful in enhancing engineering for social justice and sustainable community development or in providing venues for publication of their efforts and the results of relevant research. The philosophers mentioned were Bernard Williams, Alisdair MacIntyre, and Annette Baier. Among the resources were the Online Ethics Center at NAE at onlineethics.org and the IEEE journal Technology and Society. Participants emphasized new themes for teaching engineering ethics raised in workshop presentations and discussion: taking a systems-oriented approach that includes understanding its social dimensions, increasing the use of critical thinking and the social sciences (especially science and technology studies); and training in the development of empathy and people skills and attentiveness to local knowledge. People reiterated the need, strongly felt, to become partners with the communities in which service would be offered and to examine cultural priorities including systems of patronage and religious affiliation that could affect understanding and reception of offers of assistance, and also encourage positive social action. In closing, the session moderator pointed out that these points raise further questions, leaving open-ended considerations for continuing the conversation.