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



This evolving series of FAQs provides guidance on considerations when acting in the humanitarian and international development (HID) sector.

Considerations when entering the HID sector


Our firm has been approached by an organisation about providing structural engineering 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 on any project, 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?

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 and regional conditions and resources (materials and labour) available? See also code choice below.

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. 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.

Sometimes the best advice for the communities 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.


Code choice


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 governing 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 (if applicable), local professionals, other designers working in the region or regional technical universities.

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.

If initial enquires do not deliver further information, then develop a strategy for design to appropriate international model codes such as IBC or Eurocodes.

Make sure that you can derive appropriate factors for seismic, wind or other environmental actions, if these are not mapped for your site location.

Consult experts if this is critical to the design. Prepare the basis of design 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 in a format that they will be able to understand.

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.

Note that many materials used in development projects may not be supported by design codes, although there will be guidelines for use.

What is usually crucial is the detailing, rather than analysis and element design. If you are unfamiliar with the material or construction techniques, make sure that you detail to best practice, especially as regards weatherproofing for durability, and anchorage of roofs with consideration of what fixings may be readily available and durable in the proposed environment.

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


What’s 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?


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.


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.


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.


Other questions

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

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