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Countering militancy in Pakistan: an engineering response August 17, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Pakistan, Trevelyan, James , trackback

James Trevelyan

Recent studies of engineering practice have started to draw aside a cloak of invisibility that has enveloped the work of engineers for centuries if not millenia.  These studies started with the observation that the real costs of essential engineered services such as water supply, electricity, transport, construction, and communications can be much higher in Pakistan than industrialised countries.  For example, safe drinking water can be between five and 25 times the cost in Australia, and electricity can be between 2 and 5 times as much (Trevelyan, 2005).

Attempts to understand these differences in cost exposed a critical lack of knowledge on how engineering practice works, even in advanced industrialized countries.  Research studies in Pakistan, India and Australia have now enabled us to understand why engineering fails to deliver in countries like India and Pakistan.

Effective engineering practice requires its participants to rely on informal coordination of the work of many people: hierarchical organisational structures common in Pakistan inhibit effective engineering.  Further, misleading perceptions of the relative cost factors such as capital and labour lead to inappropriate decisions at all levels.  Critically, in their education, engineers develop inappropriate notions of engineering practice as a purely technical problem-solving discipline.  According to this model, engineers respond to clearly stated technical problems and deliver solutions to their superiors in the hierarchy.  Therefore it is not surprising that engineers arrive in the work place with few, if any, useful and applicable skills.  They become frustrated and yearn for a predictable world free from the necessity to depend on work performed by other people.

Why is this relevant in countering militancy in Pakistan?  Most strategies for countering militancy rely implicitly on engineered services, even in the military.  Even the most basic agriculture lies trapped between the cost of labour and engineered inputs on one side and world market prices on the other side.   Engineered inputs include fertilizer, water, seed, implements, tractors, and product transport, processing, packaging, storage and distribution.  Since all these tend to cost more in a developing country, while the world market price remains the same, we can understand why agricultural production operates with much less economic benefit than in an industrialized country.  As security breaks down, the cost of maintaining engineered services increases.  Maintenance personnel require greater incentives to perform work under potentially hazardous conditions, and also demand more security for their families left behind.  Disruptions caused by security lapses result in payments for services which either cannot be accessed or are delayed in delivery.  With constrained operating budgets, maintenance lapses become more common, resulting in costly services being unavailable for use.

There are solutions in sight.  New technology could transform inefficient, cumbersome, and costly public utilities providing power and water into dynamic and profitable mega-ventures, transforming not only South Asia, but the entire developing world.  Providing water and energy to the developing world with the same level of efficiency as the industrialised world now enjoys would liberate vast untapped economic resources and transform the landscape now in the shadow of endemic poverty.

The high costs of engineering at the moment must be understood in developing effective political, economic and social strategies for conflict-affected regions.  This issue ultimately reflects inappropriate training and lack of competence rather than corruption, and fundamental changes are needed in education to avoid these problems in future.  Indeed, ambitions targets to contain atmospheric emissions of CO2 and methane will only be achieved if we can transform engineering in the developing world.

Further details are available in a paper presented to the recent conference Countering Militancy in Pakistan organized by the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at UWA .

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