Humanitarian and international development: FAQs

Author: Humanitarian and International Development Panel

Date published

5 May 2020

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Humanitarian and international development: FAQs

Date published

Humanitarian and International Development Panel

Date published

5 May 2020


Humanitarian and International Development Panel



These FAQs provide guidance for structural engineers operating in the humanitarian and international development (HID) sector.

Click on a question to see the response.


What should I consider before committing to support an international development project?

Our firm has been approached to provide structural engineering services for a development project in another country. We would like to help but have not done this kind of work before. How should we respond?

Before engaging in any work, it is important to make an appraisal of the potential impact of the project and the value of your involvement. Consider, or ask the client the following questions, so you can make a proper evaluation:

What is the need for the project? Is this appropriate use of funds, or are there more pressing needs? Will the project provide benefit without unfair exclusion of parts of the community?

Sustainability: Is the land use and necessary infrastructure secured? Is there a realistic funding plan for the construction and also the running and maintenance of the project in the future? Do the outline proposals responsibly use the available resources to good effect? Sometimes the best advice is not to build a project that might divert valuable resources, however well intended – your best service might be to help the client make this appraisal and modify their proposals accordingly.

Experience of implementing organisation: Does the client or implementing organisation have adequate proven experience of working in this context and understand the complexities of working in humanitarian and international development contexts? Are they following the best current practice in this sector? Ways of conducting due diligence include: seeking feedback on them from other specialists or NGOs working in the same field, identifying whether they have a good track record with well-regarded partner organisations, and reviewing whether they are working multi-laterally with local and national government organisations, and any relevant clusters or camp management authorities.

Supporting local professionals? If you are providing pro bono or discounted services, will that deny a local professional of their livelihood? Can you partner with a local professional or university to deliver the services? This may have added benefits of knowledge transfer: ensuring compatibility with local skills and resource availability (including communication of the design in a suitable format and language), as well as on-site quality assurance.

Capability: Do you have the expertise to perform the services for the site, regional conditions and resources (materials and labour) available? See also other FAQs below. Be prepared to say no to designing with unfamiliar materials or technologies that you do not have experience with.

Services: Make sure that you clearly contract with the client for those services that you are in a position to professionally provide given the project context and you have adequate insurance coverage for the work and location. You should also provide guidance/support to the client on how they might commission any further services that might be needed for the successful completion and maintenance of the project.

Involvement of community, end users and beneficiaries: How will the community, end users and beneficiaries be involved in the design process, the construction process and providing feedback post-construction? Successful designs in these contexts require significant involvement from these stakeholders.

What is appropriate design for humanitarian or international development contexts?

An appropriate solution in humanitarian or international development contexts is one in which buildings or structures are designed taking into account all of the different considerations for that specific context – “holistic design”.

These considerations include budget, material availability, builder capabilities, designer capabilities, natural hazards, exposure conditions for durability, regulations and policy, end user maintenance capabilities, construction safety, requirements for adaptions, environmental comfort, local cultural context, sustainability, and more. Since not all of these considerations can typically be achieved in any project, a successful design will appreciate all of these, but will prioritise the key ones based on the needs and desires of the end user communities.

Since designs in these contexts are generally very simple and constructed with limited resources, the architecture and the engineering are highly entwined – the engineering becomes the architecture, and there are often no significant additional non-structural finishes. This requires the structural engineer to play a more important role and have a broader understanding of the context – in many cases the structural engineer will effectively become the lead designer.

In order to achieve a holistic, appropriate design, meaningful community engagement is required. A design should never be imposed by others upon a community. Participatory design techniques are key to this process, and often yield surprising results where the communities’ priorities are different to what the design team had anticipated.

Construction professionals are often taught to design new and better each time, and repetition of existing designs are not encouraged. Although it is healthy to explore alternative technologies or materials, and successful cases do exist, there are many more examples of where innovations have been unsuccessful. In some extreme examples, foreign interventions with alien technologies and materials have left target communities in more seismically vulnerable buildings than they would have been exposed to had they completely self-reconstructed.

In most design projects, there is no need to reinvent the wheel or introduce alien materials or technologies. Existing designs and traditional construction methodologies available in-country are normally already very appropriate, understood and have existing supply chains. Design flaws such as low seismic resistance can often be relatively easily improved with some simple tweaks targeted at improving detailing or durability. There is also much to be learnt from vernacular systems which, thanks to communities adapting them through trial and error over hundreds or thousands of years, are designed for the local hazards, use local and affordable materials, and achieve the requirements of a home.

I am working on an international development project. What codes should I use for design?

First, do your best to determine whether there are any legally mandated city, regional or national codes or regulations, including requirements for qualifications or registration of engineers. This is best done through consultation with any local government authorities, local professionals, other designers working in the region or regional technical universities, augmented by a desk study, since local practice may not always follow national regulations. You may not have direct line of communication with these bodies, so make sure your client is able to carry out this discussion for you and aim to get confirmation in writing of outcomes. Also check if the project funders or insurers (if applicable) have supplementary requirements.

Note that many national building codes around the world may not follow international best practice or may contain outdated and often unconservative hazard information (especially with the increasing impacts of climate change). It is often beneficial to independently assess how up-to-date the national codes are, which can be done in consultation with local practitioners, by a desk-study into published papers on the topic or by consulting independent international specialists in the field. This is a common issue: in particular, for the determination of seismic hazard parameters for design.

Develop a strategy for design to the appropriate/ governing national codes, or if necessary, international model codes such as IBC or Eurocodes:

  • Make sure that you can derive appropriate factors for seismic, wind or other environmental actions, if they are not provided for your site location
  • Local material availability and grades may also be limited and/ or different from countries that you have previously designed in, and so strengths and specifications may need to be determined on a project-specific basis, supported by testing, as necessary
  • Note that many materials used in development projects may not be supported by design codes, although there will normally be guidelines for use

Beware of doing a “mix-and-match” on model codes as load safety factors and material codes may be based on different baseline assumptions and so may need modification for compatibility. Consult experts where this is critical to the design.

Communities can provide valuable knowledge on hazards on the micro scale, such as local flooding. Caution should be made when using community knowledge to determine rarer hazards with longer return periods, such as seismic, as these are often beyond living memory.

Prepare a basis of design document and provide to any approving bodies and the client for their acceptance – clearly outlining any assumptions that may have an impact on the design or operation of the building communicated in a written format that they will be able to understand.

Detailing is as important as analysis and element design. Make sure that you detail to best practice, especiallywith regards to weatherproofing for durability, robustness and anchorage of roofs with consideration of what fixings may be readily available and durable in the proposed environment.

Design and detailing should also consider the level of construction skills and inspections that will be available so that a quality lasting outcome can be achieved.

Do I need to achieve “code compliance” in HID contexts?

Permanent buildings in any setting, including development contexts, should always be designed to be compliant with the national building code – this usually means a minimum 50-60 year design life.

In humanitarian emergencies, or in the disaster recovery phase where funding is limited, construction may be temporary, the need is great and the need is urgent. Therefore structural engineers may need to relax their usual “code” requirements in order to achieve a simpler and less costly design that will have a greater impact in the short term. If this is the case, it is essential that any reduced performance requirements and increased maintenance requirements are clearly communicated to the client and end users.

Note that in many scenarios, the cost of a fully code compliant and durable building is not significantly greater than a temporary building, and therefore the small additional financial investment to make it perform better is more than worth it.

Do I need to apply the same level of technical rigour when designing in humanitarian and international development contexts?

Yes. It is essential that the same level of technical rigour is applied to HID contexts as for any country or context, and that work is carried out to the highest professional standards.

There can be a perception amongst some designers that services for projects in humanitarian and international development contexts attract lower liability, especially when they are provided pro-bono and may comprise buildings thought to be simple and small in size. In addition, HID contexts often contain less stringent and less frequent checks and balances, for example weak or non-existent building control. For both these reasons there is a greater risk of poor-quality outcomes resulting from:

  • Sub-standard design and construction practices
  • Scope and capability gaps between designers and builders
  • Use of projects as training for inexperienced engineers not used to appropriate detailing and construction methodologies
  • Adoption of unconventional materials of which the designers and builders may not have experience

Professionally, the same level of technical rigour must be applied to all contexts – communities are entitled to the same level of structural safety and construction quality, regardless of the context. Furthermore, engineers should be encouraged to take the initiative and support or instigate independent checks where there may not be local capacity. Therefore, arguably greater technical rigour may be required in HID contexts.

What has colonialism got to do with aid work?

Colonialism is relevant to aid work because the inequalities and injustices that aid seeks to remedy are in large part due to the legacy of colonialism. The systemic racism that stems from colonial era slavery and exploitation very much persists to this day.

As described in the guidance on working in the international development and humanitarian sectors, power imbalances have a significant impact on the work that aid workers and organisations seek to do. Many aspects of those power imbalances are rooted in the colonial history of countries and their peoples. To ignore colonialism is to ignore those power imbalances.

There are almost no countries in the world with no colonial history. They have either colonised, been colonised, or both. Colonisation, throughout history, has been about the gathering of power and resources and the subjugation of nations and peoples to the interests of the colonisers. It has taken many forms, and it has been marked by racism, slavery, incarceration, violence, looting, systematic theft, torture, and genocide.

Anyone from a country or society which has built its success and wealth on colonialism, and anyone wanting to use their wealth and privilege to do good and fight injustice, must be aware of this. It is all too easy for aid work to be a patriarchal or colonial undertaking, further subjugating and disempowering people. Or for it to be an insulting token effort set against the systemic inequalities that remain to this day.

It is possible to decolonise aid work, and to make it a meaningful way to address historic and present injustice. But it requires knowledge, careful thought, true collaboration and solidarity, and the aid workers and organisations must be subsidiary to those they seek to help.

It is easy to find many resources and studies of colonialism and its impact, and those who would like to learn more are encouraged to do further research of their own.

What does resilience mean in a humanitarian or development context?

 Ensuring resilience is a key aspect of the work of a structural engineer, and there is a clear and comprehensive explanation of resilience provided by the Institution.

Humanitarian contexts are generally those where people’s resilience has been exhausted; where the capacity to absorb shocks and adapt to evolving conditions is not sufficient. In this situation, humanitarian assistance is required, to help people survive and start to recover. Humanitarian assistance, in some circumstances, can help people rebuild a degree of resilience to future shocks, but its primary aim is usually to save lives and allow people to maintain safety and dignity. Humanitarian assistance is rarely a long-term solution to the underlying causes of people’s vulnerability.

In more stable development contexts, building resilience is a key aspect of any projects. Development projects will most often be working with marginalised, vulnerable and less resilient people and communities. Resilience can be improved by reducing the risk people face, increasing their capacities and assets to deal with shocks, and improving the enabling environment they live in.

How dangerous is aid work?

This depends entirely on what role someone is undertaking and in what context. Most aid work is very safe, and much of it is not very different from an office-based job in the private sector. Management of safety and security in many humanitarian organisations is highly professionalised.

The highest risk to aid workers across all the contexts in which they work is road traffic accidents.

Some aid work takes place in conflict settings, and this can be dangerous. In some places aid workers can be targeted by violent actors. Aid workers who work in these contexts must ensure they have sufficient training and support, and understand the risks. The Aid Worker Security Database maintains a database of incidents and compiles an annual report on the state of aid worker safety and security, highlighting which countries and contexts are most dangerous.

In rapid onset emergencies and conflict settings aid workers may see and experience significant trauma. Humanitarian work in particular can be very stressful. Aid workers need to look after their mental health and safety as much as they do their physical health and safety. They cannot help others if they are themselves not safe and well.

It is important to note that it is almost always local aid workers and local staff who run the highest risks in delivering aid, and suffer much higher rates of accident and fatality than international staff.

What proportion of the work is actually structural engineering on a HID posting?

This varies just as it does in private engineering practice. Some roles are highly technical, with a focus on engineering and construction. Some roles are managerial, and require knowledge of engineering and engineering judgement, but little hands-on application. Some engineers move entirely into other roles, such as organisational leadership, financial management, policy or other areas.

Is there a typical length of posting, deployment or contract?

Many jobs in humanitarian and development work have fixed length contracts, although there are also many permanent jobs.

In emergencies it is not unusual for rapid response teams to be deployed for periods between one and six months. It is difficult to make a useful contribution in less than a month, even in an emergency.

The most frequent length of contract is 12 months, and these are often extended.

What levels of support do aid workers receive?

The level of support provided to aid workers depends very much on the situation in which they are working and the organisation they work for. It is important that before accepting a role you check the organisational and pastoral support that is provided.

As engineers, it is rare for professional and technical support to be available. Most engineering roles are the sole technical role in a particular organization or location. It is vital that engineers are competent to operate independently.

How important are second/third language skills?

It is very useful to speak additional languages if you wish to be an aid worker, but which language is useful depends on where you are working. English, Arabic, Hindi, French, Spanish, and Swahili are particularly useful, given the large geographical areas in which they are spoken.

There are real problems in the aid sector with all meetings and discussions happening in English, regardless of the local language(s). This can exclude local people from important decision-making and communications. Whatever languages you speak, it is important that measures are implemented to avoid excluding affected people and local organisations from the response.

Other questions

If you have a query not covered in the FAQs please contact the Panel.


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